The next morning we took a small plane to Ngorogoro Crater. A bit of advice for those travelling in Tanzania where the luggage limits for small planes is only 15 kilos per person because of the high mountains they have to traverse. In most other countries like Botswana and South Africa it is 20 kilos.
After a lot of weighing and checking, I could not see how I was going to be able to do it. we had 10kg of camera gear each, leaving only 5kg for all our clothing, toiletries, laptop and so forth. In the end we decided to buy one extra seat on the Tanzanian flights between the three of us, giving us an extra 15 kilos -5 kilos each, which allowed us to pack 20 kilos each, in line with our next safari. It was a great idea, I highly recommend it.
We carefully steered clear of the passing traffic on our way to the airport for small planes outside Arusha.
It was time to board our plane, having paid a 'consideration' to someone to watch over our bags and make sure they were loaded onto the right plane, after I had discovered them in a pile for the wrong one!
We arrived at Gibbs Farm and were most impressed. It is not cheap, being a 5* hotel in a beautiful location, with lovely gardens and luxury cottages for guests. However, it is like an oasis of much needed calm and relaxation after some pretty torrid travel. From the high vantage point of Gibb’s Farm you look out over splendid views of the plains below. The accommodation was extremely comfortable and the food was excellent.
We arranged a much-needed massage after all the bumpy roads, after which the others went on a bird walk which was one of the many interesting featured activities. I rested my knee which was not happy after all the travelling. I had also developed a cough, and feared I had caught a virus. We ate a delicious meal at a delightfully secluded table looking out over the spectacular views.
We were only staying two nights, checking in after our journey from Arusha, going into Ngorogoro Crater the next day, one night more, then off to the Serengeti. We said to the manager that we wished we could stay longer, and he commented, ‘Everyone says that!’ We definitely would have been happy to stay longer in this oasis of calm.
Our guide, Albert Samweli of Shimesa http://www.shimesatravel.com, was excellent. He had picked us up from the airport and was taking us to the crater the next day. He suggested a civilized hour, but we asked if he could get us to the gates when they opened, which necessitated heading out before dawn - Ngorogoro is extremely popular with tourists. We knew there would be big crowds later on and wanted to make the most of our photographic opportunities.
I cannot stress highly enough that if you go to Africa on the trip of a lifetime, it is worth every penny to pay extra for a private guide and vehicle. This is particularly so when you are a keen photographer because you can choose when to leave and come back. You also have a say in how the vehicle is positioned to capture the action, get better light falling on the animal, or to achieve a less messy background. You can also stay as long as you want with the animals, without some tourist in your safari vehicle with the attention span of a gnat wanting to move off because nothing is ‘happening’.
Next morning we got up at 4.30 a.m. and trundled down to the vehicle with our camera backpacks and other gear in the dark, then drove for about an hour to get to the gates. Albert went through the check-in procedure, warning us not to allow the baboons roaming about to get into the car.
The crater wall is enormous and was shrouded in mist, this phone video shows the eerie sight as we drove around the rim to get to the steep road down into the crater.
Trees all around were festooned in Spanish beard moss from the constant damp. They were beautiful with their typical acacia shape. This one has many sparrow weaver nests dangling from its wide branches. I took this photo inside the crater, once we were out of the mist. Can you see the lilac breasted roller perched top left?
We were there before the madding crowds, which enabled us to see and enjoy the beautiful environment of the crater with its lovely lakes without a constant stream of other traffic.
The grazing animals were in good condition, you could see they felt safe with plenty of water and feed, and as far as we could see, not all that many predators.
It was hard to understand why the wildebeest would scale the crater walls and go join hordes of other wildebeest streaming across the Serengeti Plain, to jump into the Mara River with the gigantic crocodiles which had been waiting seven months for the wildebeest and zebras to return and give them a good feed.
Albert, our guide, said that old and sick animals do not choose to leave the crater, which makes perfect sense to this decrepit traveller!
The crater was epic in size. I took this photo which has a pair of elephants in the middle distance giving a sense of scale. The power and cataclysmic damage of this enormous volcano exploding is unimaginable!
The absolute highlight of our visit was seeing a lion family with seven cubs! I was thrilled. I’ve been to Africa but not seen any babies till now, and these two cuties were adorable hidden amidst the wildflowers.
They had chosen to gambol in a field of flowers fairly close to the road. Vehicles are not allowed to go off road in the crater so we couldn’t have been more fortunate that they were within reach of our long lenses.
The babies played happily and then went to sleep, as babies do. Other people who had pulled up alongside us chose to leave. Being keen photographers, we waited. Babies sleep, then wake up, if you are patient you will be rewarded.
They woke and played some more, this time some of them chose to play with dad. I could not believe how tolerant the male lion was with his offspring.
Time and again they took a swipe at him and he closed his eyes, patiently allowing them all sorts of liberties.
The lioness slept as the little ones tried all sorts of tricks on dad and tried his tolerance to the limit.
Is this the milkbar?
Then the lioness got up and walked off. The lion was soon overtaking her. The cubs did not follow. They knew more than we did about what was about to happen.
It seemed that the male was particularly mellow because he was about to enjoy some afternoon delight!
The male lion had such a look of pleased satisfaction on his face afterwards! This was my husband’s favourite photo.
The female went back to sleeping and the cubs went back to pestering dad. At one point the lion gave the lioness such a look, it could easily be imagined that he was saying ‘Will you give over sleeping and come help me with the kids!’
One cub pounced on dad!
Eventually a cub went too far and got told off for his temerity, but we were charmed by what a tolerant father that lion was.
Many prides have a coalition of males, often brothers, who rule the pride. The lionesses when in season will share their favours with all of the males in a short period, to ensure that none of the lions is sure whether these are his cubs or not. Apparently the lions can tell roughly when the cubs were conceived and will not kill the little ones if there is a possibility that they are the father.
This lion family, however, seemed to be just the one male and female with cubs, although they may have absented themselves from a bigger pride for privacy. Maybe the male was especially kindly with the cubs because his love life was very satisfactory!
Eventually we reluctantly tore ourselves away to give space to other vehicles as the late starters arrived and the tourist invasion of Ngorogoro Crater hotted up.
Moving on, we paused to take photographs of the gorgeous grey crowned cranes, which are endangered. These beautiful birds were on my list of things to photograph and although they were quite far away, I was able to get good images of this pair feeding in the grassland. (Although this and the next photo are heavily cropped.)
I was delighted when this couple came together so elegantly in the mating dance. They both raise their family, and maintain a family structure for 9-10 months while looking after the eggs and young.
Hippos were enjoying a good wallow in the mud and moving from one wallow to another, festooned with ox-peckers which theoretically keep down ticks and other nasties, but also feast on the blood of their hosts and are not above keeping wounds open for this purpose.
We saw other fascinating bird life of the region as well, including a Kori bustard with beautiful, intricately patterned feathers.
An African wattled lapwing was so close to the vehicle that I could barely get it all in the frame, since my other half had my second camera with the wider lens.
Flamingos were pacing through the lake in stately fashion, but too far away to get a good shot. We could not get closer on account of marshes between us and the lake.
We stopped to watch squabbling hyenas. They have a very distinct pecking order, and although the brown one was bigger than one of the others, his attempts to feed on the carcass they had found were fiercely rebuffed by the other two.
We had a picnic lunch in a lovely position overlooking the water, and then decided to call it a day. The crater was filling up with tourists and we’d seen a rich panoply of animals with the highlight being that happy lion family. We felt that we’d had a wonderful day, and elected to return to Gibb’s farm early for a nap and to pack for our onward journey the next day.
Ngorogoro Crater was far more beautiful, lush, and epic in scale than I ever imagined. I'd heard stories about how it wasn't worth seeing, being spoiled by tourist hordes. However, thanks to our daughter who had been there before, we chose to leave early and did not regret it. I loved our experience there. Here is a panorama of the crater taken from the crater wall as we wended our way home.
On our last night at Gibb’s Farm night we saw a bush baby which came in to a feeder they have set up. I had waited for ages with my good camera before dinner to take photos of it, but it refused to show up. Then, walking back to our room after dinner, we spotted it! We didn’t have our cameras, but I seized my i-phone X. For anyone who claims that phone photos are just as good as those taken with the heavier SLRs, I can only say that it depends on your subject matter - but a moving small animal in the dark......not so much! I am ashamed of the terrible quality of this image, but the camera you have is worth two left in the room!
Those bush babies are nowhere near as cuddly as I imagined!
Farewell to beautiful Ngorogoro Crater - next day we were off to the Serengeti.