Crater Of Life


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, May 06, 2004 was originally posted on May 11, 2004.

DAY 201:  Two million years ago, lava erupted from a hole in the earth’s crust in what would later be known as Tanzania.  The lava spewed out and cooled, layer after layer until a big volcano was formed, just east of what would later be known as the Serengeti.  Over time, the eruptions ceased and the volcano collapsed, leaving a huge crater in the earth where plant life flourished, providing food for the lives of all the African animals that climbed up over the rim and inside.  These herbivores attracted carnivores and thus, a self-sustaining “crater of life” was born.  Known as the Ngorongoro Crater, this self-contained biosphere was formed in an area that would later been known as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, coincidentally where 2003’s Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life was filmed. 

The term “ngorongoro” is a Maasai onomatopoeic word for the ringing of a cow’s bell — the Maasai are permitted by the Tanzaznian government to graze their cattle within its bounderies — although I really don’t get how they got “ngoro” after hearing the rings from under a cow’s neck.

FELLOW TRAVELERS FRANCESCO AND PAOLA, along with cook Simon and guide/driver Elia had breakfast in Mtowuba and then hopped in the 4x4.  En route to the crater, we made a quick pitstop in the town of Karatu for some bananas.  Street vendors — one of which thought I was Brazilian — tried to sell us crafts through the window, but got no sales.  Driving up through a big troupe of baboons in the middle of the road, we arrived at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area entrance gate, stopping briefly in the visitors’ center.

“You were right about the rains,” I told Elia.  He had predicted the grey weather the night before.

“I know the area,” he boasted.

We continued through the morning mountain fog of the rainy season over the rim and down a rocky and bumpy road into the big crater of life, 23 km. in diameter (picture above).  On the way, we encountered two elephants.  “That one has a fifth leg,” Elia pointed out, referring to its well-endowed, leg-long genitalia.

THE REST OF THE DAY was spent driving around the inside of Ngorongoro Crater, looking for wildlife on the designated dirt roads.  Sometimes the animals were far away; sometimes they were right in the middle of the road, blocking the way until we arrived to part the herds like Moses parting the Red Sea.  The day was filled with sightings of zebras, giraffes, water buffaloes, Thomson’s gazelles, elands, wildebeests, hartebeests, Grand’s gazelles, jackals, warthogs, hippos, elephants, hyenas and ostriches.  At Lake Magade, the big lake inside the crater, we saw hundreds of flamingoes.  Although Elia was a fairly knowledgeable guide, he wouldn’t really explain anything unless we asked; 95% of the time he’d just point and say something like “Look.  Ostrich.”  With the roof propped open, we looked where he pointed and shot photos as best we could (picture above).  From up there looking all around 360&deg, we saw how we were surrounded by the mountains that comprise the rim of the crater. 

When we noticed a group of other 4x4s in one area, we went to investigate.  They had found a lioness.  Soon, other jeeps came and surrounded her like crazy paparazzi.  It was sort of sad to see the female feline trapped by metal and rubber, but she eventually moved on, with cubs behind her.  With the cubs came the Lion King of the pride himself, who had no qualms about stopping the flow of traffic by taking a brief nap under one of the trucks — the King of the Jungle Bad Ass he was.

DURING A LUNCH BREAK AT A NEARBY LAGOON, there was something else under our jeep:  Simon, Elia and other guides trying to fix the shocks of our Toyota Land Cruiser.  They had no tools or anything and just tied pieces together with a makeshift strap of rubber.  It held as we continued our game drive through the Ngorongoro Crater.  In addition to the animals we saw that morning, we sighted two new animals that I had not seen before in the wild in person (not even in my previous safari in Botswana in 2000):  the cheetah and, far off in the distance, rhinos.  After that excitement it was the same old thing and it actually got a little tiresome.  I feel asleep.

Elia drove us out of the crater, up the rim to several garages established to fix damaged safari trucks.  The third one we went to actually had the parts we needed, which was a good thing because the rest of the day we went down a rocky road towards the Serengeti National Park.  En route, we passed Maasai herders with their flocks of sheep and cattle — I still didn’t get how they got “ngoro” from the sound of a cow bell — and then we made a short stop at the Oldupai Gorge, “one of the most important archaeological sites on Earth” according to the site museum (which was closed; Elia instructed us to just loook through the window).  The gorge 1400 m. ASL was once the site of a prehistoric lake and now holds layers of two million years of geological and paleontological history.  Each of the five layers provided a look into the past, with fossils of primitive giraffes, elands, elephants and mankind itself.

THE “CALM BEFORE THE STORM” was everything that had transpired up until that point.  Making a long drive westbound we crossed into the boundaries of the Serengeti National Park.  In the distance was a heavy storm and I thought we would be stopping before encountering it, but our campsite for the night was right underneath it all.  The rains turned the dirt roads into mud roads and we peeled out twice.  The sky got dark as we rocked back and forth, truly testing the limits of how far one could tilt a Toyota Land Cruiser before it tipped over.  I had to hand it to Elia; he was a master at the wheel, getting us to our lonely campsite in a nearby forest of umbrella acacia trees.  Despite its common name, the trees didn’t shield us much from the rain coming from above.

Simon prepared dinner while we set up the tents together with the last remaining minutes of daylight.  Distant lighting flashed through the big African sky, revealing the silhouettes of acacia trees on the horizon.  The rain turned into a light drizzle by that time, which was good.  But in lieu of the roaring thunder came the roar of a lioness in the distance.

“The wildebeest are nearby from the migration,” Elia said.

“So they predators are nearby?”


The only other sound caused by nature was the sound of raindrops falling off the branches and hitting our metal plates like church bells.  I still didn’t get how the sound of bells translated to the onomatopoeic term “ngoro.”

Next entry: Stranded in the Serengeti

Previous entry: Modern Maasai

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Comments for “Crater Of Life”

  • hmm ... Who’s hunting who?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  05:21 PM

  • Erik - this is my favourite entry so far.  You saw so many great animals.  My husband is rolling his eyes - he says I can just go to the zoo.  Ngorongoro is definitely only my list of places to go - the scenery alone is cool.

    Posted by Liz  on  05/11  at  06:55 PM

  • Wow - that’s some leg!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  10:13 PM

  • yup…definitely some leg…..

    who said the lion is king of the jungle/safari?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  12:56 AM

  • To fall asleep to the sound of a lion roaring might scare me a little… but, sounds like you had a great day full of wild animals! I’m jealous.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:38 AM

  • awww, the lion cubs are so cute!!! and now that expression “hung like an elephant” makes more sense now. sheesh. that is some leg.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  07:30 PM

  • Great pics today! It’s amazing how close the animals were. Spotting a cheetah is very cool (no pun intended).

    So question… can a female elephant judge the size of the male’s shlong by the size of his trunk? Hmmm…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  01:25 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Stranded in the Serengeti

Previous entry:
Modern Maasai


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