My alarm goes off and I fumble in the darkness to silence it. No light shows through the bare window. We arrived in darkness, racing through the gate to Ngorongoro Conservation Area that closes at sunset. Now it’s 5am and we dress hurriedly to rush down for breakfast. We know that we are less that half an hour away from that awe-inspiring, uninterrupted view of the crater that we could only sense the night before.
A Typical Day in Ngorongoro Crater
The sense of being in a truly special place is palpable in Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge. Situated on the crater rim, it offers unbelievable crater views from most rooms. Believe it or not, this is not what made us choose this lodge. I would have been equally happy in a tent listening to the sounds of the rainforest microclimate outside. Our choice of lodge had everything to do with location, location, location. It was my 2nd time to visit the Crater. The first time was memorable for the 10 minute steep ascent to the crater floor and our time observing lions lazing in the sun only arms reach from the car. For my second visit, I wanted more. I wanted to see lions on the hunt. This meant a sunrise start which, for me, is usually difficult. For some reason, early starts in Africa come more naturally. Waking with the sun is a whole lot easier with lions waiting down below and the early sunsets (approx. 6pm) mean that time is of the essence.
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa
Ngorongoro Crater is home to approximately 25,000 large animals. This includes lions, wildebeest, elephant and buffalo. Giraffe are notably absent, as are impala, but the abundance of other animals still makes it an unmissable stop on a short safari. Some people refer to Ngorongoro Crater as a glorified zoo. To me this is a ridiculous statement only made by those privileged enough to go on many safaris in their lifetime. For a first timer, or someone on a limited timespan, the crater is the perfect way to see a high concentration of animals in a short period of time.
Making the Descent on the Search for Lions
Once we finished breakfast and admired the view, it was time to get on the road. The crater opens at 6am and fees (200 USD per vehicle) must be paid at the gate. Soon it was time to begin our descent down the 610 metre crater wall. On the way down we passed Maasai herders descending on foot with their cattle. Even in the car I was hanging on for dear life so I can only imagine how difficult the descent must be on foot. I suppose when you’re doing it every day it starts to look effortless! We reached the crater floor without too many cars following- I was grateful for our early start. However, where we had previously sat beside sleeping lions, we saw nothing. We drove for 15 minutes passing nothing more exciting than wildebeest, gazelles and endless zebras. All great in their own right, but not top of my list on my 4th safari!
In for the kill
Time was ticking. All my friends were having a great time on their first African trip, happily snapping endless photos of Thomson’s Gazelles and eland. I was almost losing hope when we stopped behind another car observing a herd of zebra. The next thing I knew a male lion was walking towards us. As I nearly fell over myself to get a photo of his perfect mane, my friend grabbed my arm. Right beside her, on the other side of the car was a female lion. All our windows were open and she could have touched her without extending her arm. We all held our breath as slowly, one after another, a whole pride of lions stalked past us.
We realised with a mixture of horror and excitement that the herd of beautiful zebra we had been observing were the target. More and more lions kept appearing from behind the vehicle in front of us. We counted 15 in total! Some crept through the long grass while others crouched in the shadow of our vehicle. We were all afraid to move but wanted to get the best view of what was about to unfold. Three female lions arranged themselves in formation to keep watch from all angles. The zebra herd were still blissfully unaware, munching grass and flicking flies with their tails. On a silent command from an unknown lioness they sprung into action. Leaping across a small stream, they bounded towards the zebra.
The male lions stayed behind while the females attempted to corral the zebra herd. Other lionesses waited on the periphery to pick off the unfortunate zebra that couldn’t keep up. Soon, they spotted their prey, the weak link of the group. 2 lionesses chased a young zebra for about a minute while he ran around the herd trying to find a way in. Eventually he managed to get back to the group and the herd galloped into the distance. The lions milled around for a while, deflated and hungry, before gathering at the watering hole for a drink.
Circle of Life
However, all was not lost! We later spotted two lioness finishing off what appeared to be a gazelle. Vultures circled overhead, while hyenas waited for the leftovers. The Lion King’s ‘Circle of life’ played on the jeep radio and all was right with the world…ok, I made that part up, but what a perfectly natural conclusion to the day!