Nestled deep in the interior of east-central Africa is Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, one of the most spectacular places on earth. A short seven hour flight to London, followed by a nine hour flight to Nairobi and a 14 hour Land Rover ride will land you in the centre of the 120 square kilometre caldera of this natural zoo, abundant with thousands of animals, who have existed here for hundreds of generations.
The walls of the crater are too high for many animals to climb keeping the population in perfect balance. Several well maintained lodges have been built on the rim of the crater, but no construction is allowed in the bottom, thus ensuring the animal kingdom below remains pristine and free from human contamination.
The government of Tanzania is extremely strict and enforces laws with heavy fines and penalties. Drivers are not permitted to leave the dirt trails, thereby not interfering with the natural progression of the animal world.
The Ngorongoro Crater is home to 12 rare black rhinos. Each rhino has two rangers who have one purpose: to guard the nearly extinct creatures from poachers. A few months before I was there two rangers fell asleep on the job and the rhino they were guarding was killed and its horn removed. The government not only fired the rangers but permanently confiscated their driver’s licenses and passports, which made it difficult for them to work, seek employment or move to nearby Kenya, Zambia or Rwanda. A tough punishment, but necessary if the beauty of this region is to be protected.
Every morning I would wake at five and be in the Land Rover by six. The 30 minute drive down the slopes of the crater seemed endless, as I was eager to see the activities of life in the wild. My driver, a Kenyan named Rafi, was an expert at the wheel and extremely resourceful in the search for leopards and cheetahs, animals that are become harder to locate as their numbers dwindle.
On the second day of my trek we came upon a herd of elephants. Rafi explained to me that an elephant, when angered, has three defense mechanisms: the first is to stomp its foot and kick up dust. The second is to flap its ears while looking at you and the third is to raise its trunk and trumpet loudly.
I asked Rafi what we would do if we encountered the situation and he smiled reassuringly explaining that he would immediately shut off the engine and we would sit silently so that we would not pose a threat to the giant mammal. I felt confident and when we suddenly came upon a large matriarch who stood staring in our direction I looked at Rafi and he smiled reassuringly.
We watched the elephant while my camera went non stop. Suddenly I noticed her stomping her foot continuously on the dusty ground. I looked at Rafi, who was no longer smiling. He looked around and silently pointed to a calf that had been separated from the mother, by our Land Rover.
A moment later the elephant began to flap its ears and stepped closer toward us. No more than 3 metres away I had now stopped breathing. A short moment later she raised her trunk and bellowed out a loud, ear shattering trumpet sound, which shook the surrounding trees. As I froze in my seat I was shocked when Rafi threw the Land Rover into reverse and drove backward as fast as he could. The elephant followed and Rafi increased his speed. We swerved around bushes and flew over bumps and when the elephant neared the calf it stopped. We slowed and came to a halt when we were a safe distance from the mother and calf.
I looked at Rafi and asked what had happened. Why did we not turn the engine off and sit as still as possible. Rafi looked at me and said, “I know that is what we are supposed to do, but did you not see how big that elephant was?”
I chuckled and caught my breath, looking around to make sure we were not near any other elephants. I liked Rafi and respected his talents in the jungle, but never let my guard down again when we were near any wild animals.
The best way to visit the Ngorongoro Crater is to combine it with two Kenya safaris: one, north into the Samburu region and a second into the Masai Mara. This will give you an extremely good perspective of wild animals, people, their culture and the magnificent landscape of the Serengeti.
Unfortunately, Africa is suffering greatly and the strain is reflected in the animal populations. My very first time in Kenya was in 1997 and the wildlife population was much greater then. If you have thought about visiting east Africa, do not put it off much longer.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the setting for Jonathan van Bilsen’s 4th espionage novel, ‘The Crimson Mask’ available at Books Galore and More in Port Perry