The famous naturalist Bernhard Grzimek of the Serengeti Shall Not Die fame labelled the Ngorongoro crater “one of the wonders of the world”.
Of course the Maasai and other local communities knew of the crater long before Dr Osman Baumann, the first European to see it in 1892, reported this stunning spectacle to the outside world.
The word “Ngorongoro” is derived from the Maasai word “alkorongoro”, which means “a bowl of wealth” Josephat Sulle, the information officer at the new gate office for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, tells me.
The jaw-dropping moment that I’ve been anticipating is an anti-climax; a dense cotton-white mist has rendered the caldera invisible. Nothing can be seen of the amazing hole in the mountain formed three million years ago when the giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself.
Still, it’s great to be standing on the rim in the swirling mist. As we descend slowly along the steep slope, the sun bursts out and the mist begins to lift, revealing the caldera.
In wild Africa, everything depends on the seasons. It’s the dry spell and the crater looks like a vast dust-bowl, save for the green of the forests on the caldera walls.
Our first stop is the swamp by Lerai Forest, which is full of tall yellow-barked acacias, and which is where the Datooga leader who died in a battle against the Maasai around 1840 is buried.
A herd of elephants enjoy a morning bath in the swamp. According to the guide, it’s mostly the bulls that live in the crater while the females prefer to raise their calves on the rim.
Coarse grass covers the dust bowl. Yet thousands of wildebeest survive on it, awaiting the last days of the dry spell.
A lone black rhino walks to the water and then slumps to the ground to enjoy a mud bath. A lioness watches over the plains. A pack of spotted hyenas sun themselves along a ridge and raptors soar in the sky.
Giraffes with their long legs can’t manage the steep gradient so that’s one animal that you won’t see in the crater.
Surviving the dry spell
The salt lake in the middle of the crater, Magadi –from the Maa word “makat” for “salt” – is dry. In my mind’s eye, I see it pink with flamingos when there’s water, but now there is only a lone animal licking the salt.
Despite the dry spell, life continues. A Kori bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, sits by the side of the road while its mate forages for insects in the grass.
At the picnic spot beside the lake fed by the spring waters of the Ngoitokitok, a herd of hippo frolics in the deep blue water as kites soar above. Two enormous bull elephants stay among the reeds to cool themselves.
While driving out of the crater, we stop for the final pictures of a pride of lions and two rhinos. From the rim, there is a clear view of the tops of the sacred Maasai mountain, Ol Donyo Lengai, Olmoti Crater and Empakai Crater.
It’s a fascinating land of crater highlands carved out during the tumultuous era of erupting volcanoes and raging fires.