The Mbulu, or Iraqw as they call themselves, are thin-boned, Cushitic-language-speaking people who originally came from the Horn of Africa. They inhabit this high plateau beneath the Crater Highlands.Once you have passed this Mbululand, cultivation stops and you are entering the magnificent forest of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where you soon reach Lodware Gate, the entrance to Ngorongoro.After passing the gate, the road climbs up the southern flanks of the Ngorongoro volcano. The montane forest you are passing gets thicker and thicker. As you climb the mountain; the air gets cooler. Tall, silvery-trunked Pillar Wood, flat-topped Peacock Flower Acacias and broad-leafed Croton surround you as you pass through this tree filled area. On the road side you see the eye-striking yellow flowers of Crotolaria bushes, also called Lion’s claw. Your ride up the extinct Ngorongoro volcano is intoxicatingly beautiful.In reaching the Ngorongoro crater rim, you’ll catch the first glimpse of the crater floor, one of the most famous wildlife sanctuaries; that is often described as the eighth wonder of the world. This huge bowl is the world’s largest unbroken, un-flooded, volcanic caldera – formed by a giant volcano exploding and collapsing onto itself around 2-3 million years ago. It covers an area of about 250sq.km, is about 20km across and the depth from the crater floor to the rim averages around about 610m on average. It is considered ‘a natural enclosure’ for a wide range of wildlife; due to the steep sides the animals do not migrate and leave the crater – meaning it’s an amazing place to see African wildlife all year round. From this viewpoint, you can imagine, the size and scale of how big the original volcano must have been, as you see the staggering size of the crater spanning off in a complete arc to either side of you.As you look down you can see stretches of grass savannah, swamps, streams, forests, low hillocks and the soda lake, Lake Magadi. You will also definitely be able to make out herds of animals on the crater floor, although they are just tiny dots from above. But looking through your binoculars, you can see what they are: herds of buffalos, wildebeests, zebras and gazelles. Most of them could leave the crater at any time but they have everything they need inside – so why bother?Shortly after this first view point you’ll reach the memorial stones of Professor Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael. They were the makers of the film “Serengeti Shall Not Die” and published a book of the same name in 1959. They conducted surveys and censuses of the animals in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater and were heavily involved in the fight against poachers. Tragically Michael was killed in an aeroplane accident over the Ngorongoro Crater in 1959 and his father returned to Germany where he set up the Frankfurt Zoological Society. He died in 1987 requesting in his will that he should be buried beside his son in Tanzania. Their memorials remain as a reminder of all the work they did to protect this part of Africa.Leaving the memorial stones your driver will follow the road on the western edge of the caldera rim. Elephant and buffalo are often seen here in the forest but you might be even more excited at the prospect of seeing a leopard, as usual your guide’s intimate knowledge of the area and keen eyesight will make sure you miss nothing. Once you have passed Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, an expensive, lodge on the crater rim, the forest thins out into pastures of tussock grass. Sprinkled among the meadows are gnarled Nuxia congesta trees, wrapped under heavy robes of gray-green moss. With this grassland come the Maasai and their herds; you’ll encounter small groups of Maasai women and children at the roadside, and Maasai men with their cattle herds.Where the road down to the crater floor begins, you will stop at another viewpoint with a great vista over the crater floor and its pink-fringed soda lake. The road is a one-way route, which is narrow and rough. The track coils alarmingly among rocks and soon the dotted black stones you have been seeing from the top turn out to be herds of animals. Tall succulent trees, including Euphorbia candelabrum and Euphorbia bussei, line the roadside. When flowering (pink or white), they attract swarms of bees but the honey they produce irritates and burns the mouth, it’s inedible.At the end of your descent, after about 20 minutes, you reach the Seneto Springs, where we stop for you to stretch your legs, you can have a few steps out of the vehicle to observe all sorts of wild animals and absorb the very special atmosphere. The rest of the day you spend cruising around the crater floor allowing you to take in the true beauty of the area and view large populations of wildlife. Your safari guide will raise the roof again (so you can stand up) and you are properly on safari again. You will see hundreds of wildebeest grazing peacefully side by side with gazelles and zebras. There is no other antelope like the wildebeest. It looks like it was assembled from spare parts – the forequarters could have come from and ox, the hindquarters from an antelope and the mane and tail from a horse. The antics of the territorial bulls during breeding season have earned them the name “clowns of the savannah.”Zebra and Wildebeest are together and following each other as they eat different parts of the grass, therefore working in a great natural team. Hyenas and jackals are often seen hiding in the shade or in their mounds and dens, waiting for sick animals to prey on. Sometimes you see hyenas and jackals on the margins of Lake Magadi, where they try to catch flamingos. Clouds of pink and white feathers indicate the sites of these feasts.There is so much to see:
- A big buffalo herd is approaching from the hillside, emerging from a cloud of dust.
- In the swampy Lerai Forest you can see very old solitary elephant bulls (70 to 80 years old) and small bachelor groups debarking Acacia trees and breaking off big branches.
- A pair of cheetah patrols the lakeside; from time to time they shake the fine white soda dust off their paws, as they carry on hunting for prey.