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Looking down on Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Another pocket of Eden. My first bush glamping experience. In both of my Botswana trips, I was more genuinely camping, even though the staff pitched our tents, dug our loos and fixed our food. But the tents were actual camping tents with bed rolls, and outdoor pits for toilets, a group bucket shower outside, etc.

On this East Africa trip, which my mom generously funded, we went the glamping route. Actually, by my standards, I'd have to call it opuglamping. That's a combo of opulent and glamorous. This camp, Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, just a few minutes' drive from the Lemala Crater Access Road down into the crater, is what is categorized as a "mobile camp." They actually set this whole thing up during the peak tourist season and tear it down at the end, resurrect it all the next year and tear down, etc. Which is extraordinary. The tents (nine at this camp) are larger than a typical budget hotel room, have an attached en suite bathroom, and though they are bucket showers, the one here rocked compared to the spindly one we had in Botswana ... the staff would have the warm water ready to pour into the tank within minutes of "ordering" it. Big round shower head with amazing water pressure, not just a trickle. Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, Tanzania. Our private tent.Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, Tanzania. Our private tent.Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, Tanzania. Our private tent.

My mom was particularly pleased with the hot water bottles that the staff tucked into our sheets while we were eating dinner. I was particularly pleased with the all-inclusive alcohol deal! I discovered Safari beer, my favorite of African brands I've tasted, and had amarula whenever I could.

When traveling between our private tent and the dinner tent or campfire after dark, we summoned a Masai staff member to escort us with a flashlight, since there are no fences around the camp, so any wildlife could be lurking anywhere. I was curious about the Masai staff ... the Masai are the predominant indigenous tribe in the region, and typically you see them dressed in their traditional clothing. The baboon watchmen at Amboseli, for example, wore their traditional clothing. I wondered if the Masai staff, dressed in the khaki camp uniforms with name tags (each tent had a steward, and then there was the camp manager, cook, etc.) had shed their traditions and were living Western-style lives. I was so pleased to be involved in a conversation with the camp manager, Dennis (I don't know if he has a different Masai name), around the campfire in which he told us that when he goes back to his home, about three kilometers away from the camp, he is actually not allowed to enter his village wearing his uniform -- he must change into the traditional garb. He has a mud hut just like everyone else in the village. He has two wives and four kids. If you've been following me for awhile, you may remember my fascination with bride prices. I ask about them all over Africa. Dennis said he paid eight cows for one wife, and four cows plus some sheep for the second wife ... he paid less for her because his father was friends with the bride's father.

One of Dennis's children is a cow herder -- the traditional and most common occupation of the Masai men and boys. They are to be seen with their cows everywhere you go in this region. Elly says that when the Masai herders travel with their herds or take them to market in some town, they simply lie down and sleep on the ground wherever they are when darkness falls. They drink the blood of their cows for nourishment. I've seen on TV how they prick the cow's neck in a skillful way to release only as much blood as they need. Sometimes you wonder about TV portrayals, if it's of a traditional life no longer relevant, just "for show." But Elly, and also a guide in a Masai village we visited, said this is true. The cows also provide milk for the herders.  

Dennis showed us his missing front bottom teeth as a sign of authenticity of being Masai. (this tooth-pulling is a similar practice to what the Himba do) I noticed these missing teeth in a lot of the Masai-dressed men we met or interacted with. Dennis told us the Masai used to leave their dead outside for nature to take care of the bodies,  but now they are required to bury them. (kind of a random conversation topic) This reminded me of the Zoroastrians in Iran and their Towers of Silence that we visited. 

I am always amazed at how small the world really is, and this is most often made clear when traveling. At the mobile camps, everyone eats at the same time at one big table. The people who sat next to me and my mom at dinner knew both my very small Colorado mountain town of Nederland and my mom's small hometown, the farming community of Cozad, Nebraska. This is the common tent with dining table and lounge:

Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, Tanzania. Dining tent and common area.

So anyway, now let's go down into the crater! 

Descending into Ngorongoro Crater on the Lemala crate access road in the pre-dawn.

Ngorongoro is the largest inactive volcanic caldera in the world -- 2,000 feet deep, and 12 miles in diameter. It's part of the larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area which includes Olduvai Gorge. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can read more about the conservation area and the important features that qualify it for World Heritage status HERE.

Because our camp was right near an access road to the crater (most lodgings are significantly further away), we were ready to head down into the crater as soon as the park opened in the pre-dawn. As we descended, we watched the sunlight creep in over the floor of the caldera.

Sunlight spreading across the caldera at dawn, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Zebras lining up in the morning sun.

Three zebras eating in the morning light, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Looking down onto it from above, it's hard to imagine it is full of wildlife as large as elephants. And yet the crater is home to an abundance of animals, and is one of the few places in East Africa to see black rhinos. We saw a couple very far away, only visible with binoculars. So although not close enough to take photos, I was pleased that my mom technically got to see the highly endangered rhino on her safari. 

Here we had our first encounter with very young lion cubs. One of the most darling moments of the safari. Because we were one of the first vehicles into the crater, and thanks to Elly and our driver, Hamisi, excellently positioning us, we had them to ourselves as they strolled down the road toward us. This set of lion cubs had a really particular look to them, different from all the other cubs we saw, that gave them the air of little toughie ruffians. When I posted this first pic on Facebook, I captioned it, "Look out y'all ... the boys are in the 'hood." 

Lion cubs strutting down the road, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Lion cubs strutting down the road, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Lion cubs strutting down the road, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

I was kneeling on the floor of the vehicle and leaning out the window with my camera to capture the lions at eye level. I was so focused on the little ones, I failed to notice the mother had come right up to the vehicle and brushed against it. I only realized it when she was a few inches away from me and I yoinked my camera back inside the vehicle with a little yelp of surprise. I've been very close to lions before, but never that close! My mom, meanwhile, couldn't believe it that they came so close to, even in contact with, the vehicles. It's a thrilling experience to be so close to such iconic and powerful predators. 

Lioness and lion cubs strutting down the road, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Lioness approaching our vehicle, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

After the lioness passed my window, I poked the camera out just far enough to grab a shot of her leaning against the car. It's all crooked because I wasn't about to lean all the way out to where I could straighten the camera and long lens! 

Lioness brushing against our vehicle, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

The crater was virtually teeming with gray crowned cranes. The males were gathered into flocks of twenty or more. What a spectacular sight!

Flock of gray crowned cranes in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Trio of gray crowned cranes in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

We spent a fair amount of time trying to capture them in flight, Elly and I each with our own cameras. It sounds like a really boring activity: pulling up to a flock of birds and waiting for them to fly, finger on the shutter button poised to lock down into continuous shooting mode at the first upward movement of the birds. But we were having a grand time. I didn't capture anything amazing, but here are a couple of my shots. 

Gray crowned crane about to take flight, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Gray crowned cranes in flight, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

The kori bustard is another bird I like to run into in Africa, partly because they are just so large. I can't imagine a bird like that walking around Colorado. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, but the adults are about four feet tall and they can weigh up to 40 pounds. I have never seen one in flight, but it is Africa's largest flying bird. Someday ... this is something I'm putting on my list for next safari! I also like their little ponytails. 

Kori bustard walking through grass, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

And here is a bird that I was very excited to see: the secretary bird. I saw quite a few in the Kalahari in Botswana, but never close enough to get a good photo. This dude was all puffed up and looks a bit different from the calmed-down version. I love the spray of feathers on his head, raised up and spread out, when usually they lay down folded together so it looks like only one or two feathers. It's kind of surprising to watch it rise up and separate into multiple feathers. This guy looks like he's really about to give someone some what-for ... "Now look here!"  

Secretary bird in a huff, feathers puffed out. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Backside view of secretary bird, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

A tawny eagle settling in for a little bath. 

Tawny eagle in the water with reflection, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Plenty of zebras and wildebeest and gazelles populate the crater, providing ample food for the lions. It sounds kind of harsh as I write that, to think of these lovely creatures as food! But I want the lions to live as well. I really love the gazelles, though, such sweet-looking creatures. Between the most common antelope species in Africa of impala, springbok, gazelles and wildebeest (yes, they're in the antelope family), I'm going to have to go with the gazelles as my favorite. Look at these darling Thomson's gazelles. It feels a little weird to see them sparring, such cute and mild-seeming critters shouldn't be locking horns and displaying aggression!  Pair of Thomson's gazelles looking at the camera, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Lone Thomson's gazelle standing in the middle of Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Thomson's gazelles sparring in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Thomson's gazelles sparring in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Baby zebras ... their fluffy little manes are like the sign of their babyhood -- it seems just about all baby mammals are fuzzy and fluffy as infants and toddlers. I wonder what advantage the fuzz and fluff gives to young ones besides making them so darn cute. Baby zebras also have predominantly brown stripes rather than black ones, presumably better camouflaged in the grasses where their herds graze. 

Baby zebra with fluffy mane, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Young zebra and mom, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Later in the morning we intercepted the lion family again, the little ones tromping doggedly through the grass. One of the lionesses laid down in the grass and the cubs all had some breakfast at last, after what must have been a long morning of trekking for such tiny little legs. 

Lion cub trekking through the grass in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.Lion cub trekking through the grass in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Who else did we spot? We spotted this lone spotted hyena. :-) 

Spotted hyena, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

And many, many wildebeests.

Wildebeests grazing in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

A very funny thing happened to us the day we arrived at the conservation area. Elly had to do some paperwork at the park headquarters. So Hamisi parked the vehicle in the lot, and he and Elly went to the office. They told us not to leave windows down in the vehicle, that it was dangerous because of the baboons. There were lots of them hanging about in the lot. As you may remember from Amboseli, I'm rather afraid of them and they can be terribly intimidating with their huge canines and aggressive behavior. In spite of their cautions to us, dear Elly forgot and left his window down, but my mom and I didn't think too much of it as they walked away toward the office.

So we're hanging out, and in the blink of an eye, an adult baboon jumped through the window of the Land Cruiser into the vehicle and grabbed a bag of hard candies we had sitting on a shelf behind the driver's cab. I freaked out, "Jesus Christ!" and fumbled frantically with the door, jumped out, and started yelling at mom to get out. The baboon came in so fast, she didn't even see him! She didn't understand my actions or my panic and didn't respond to my cries (I think just out of pure confusion). I didn't have shoes on when I jumped out, and the pavement was hot and full of pokey pebbles as I tried to run around the car to open the door where the baboon jumped in to let him out. Fortunately, another man in the parking lot witnessed the scene and sped over pronto to open the door. The baboon politely exited with our bag of candies.

So now we rolled up the window, but soon it started to get really hot and stuffy in the car, so mom slid open her passenger window just a tad, and again with alarming alacrity, a baboon was at the window. He reached in and grabbed the closest thing to the window: a package of napkins lying on the same shelf as the candy. My mom tried to take the napkins away in a little tug-of-war, but I was yelling at her to close the window, close the window! She thought she could either reason with or out-muscle the baboon. But I knew neither was possible, haha. The baboon dropped the napkins when she finally closed the window. Whew! What craziness can befall you while quietly waiting in a car in Africa!

One other interesting thing was that on the way to Ngorongoro, we stopped by Hamisi's house, which was on the way from Tarangire, so he could collect some things for the next leg of our trip. I thought it was very nice of him to invite us into his home and meet his wife, who was undoubtedly caught off guard, but invited us in graciously. We stopped at a shop in his town to buy some bottled water. I saw people cooking something on the roadside and asked what it was, so Elly had me get out to look and I saw they were cooking a corn mush, similar to the posho I ate in Uganda, to put stew or potatoes on. A lady there was related somehow to Hamisi (I forget how now) and told Elly (in Swahili) she wanted to meet me and shake my hand. She was absolutely beautiful and I felt embarrassed by my windblown and bedraggled look. But it was a nice little moment to have been asked for the introduction. It's these minute moments that always end up sticking with me at the end of a trip, even of the most epic ones. Last pic: me, my mom, and our friend Hamisi.

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