Dark and early: our mantra on safari. We only had one day to explore the Ngorongoro Crater, and our guide Francis (from the wonderful Africa Dream Safaris, if you aren't tired of that yet) suggested we head out by 6am or earlier.
We left in the barely-lit morning and watched the sun slowly warm the dry air.
Below, the Crater and its lake steamed in the morning, and I don't think any landscape on the safari moved me like the descent into the crater.
Unbelievably, the gray landscape illuminated into a rainbow of siennas and golds, sages and blues as the sun fell on it and the animals start to appear in dark swarms below.
See the herds? Their train is that thin line in the center right of the photo.
Sprinkled like fine pepper from above, we saw strings of wildebeests grazing the crater.
It's hard to describe the adrenaline that rushes when you spot a new animal, a baby warthog kicking the dust to keep up with mama,
a tawny eagle at ease,
the rows of flamingos the crater is renowned for that looked like candy but smelled ick-o.
And then there was a crinkle of Swahili broken over the radio and our guide raced toward something, the morning air still in the 50's streaming through the open roof, and then, at last, the lions.
(Alert! Scroll quickly if you don't want to see anything dead!) In what seemed to be a rare sighting, we saw a wild buffalo carcass being enjoyed for breakfast.
We learned that the females make most of the kills and then the males (with the manes) get first dibs while the females sleep, camouflaged in the grasses. I think I counted 13 lions here.
The most common question we've been asked is if it was safe. I can't speak of other safari companies or locations in Africa, but in Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, the animals are protected, and because they sense this, they were not aggressive and seemed to feel very comfortable with the cars, which are a normal part of their days.
I never felt unsafe in the cars and our guides respected the animals immensely, and yet knew how to help Walker get great shots. I didn't expect we'd have lions rubbing the tires, but they were so close we could smell their unsavory breakfast.
The Crater feels especially surreal because for the most part, the animals live their whole lives in the Crater and can't get out. And yet, the zebras and giraffes, elephants and wildebeests feel perfectly at ease grazing together in the 18-mile-wide oasis. Unlike zoos, the scale and quantity of animals, which is difficult to demonstrate in photos was shocking. Everywhere we drove in the crater, we could see dozens of animals
and their paradisal symbiosis.
After some zebra and buffalo sightings,
we stopped for breakfast here, an oasis full of hippos and storks (and the nearby luxury of a bathroom!)
This little guy and his friends hopped around our feet chirping so loudly for a bite, which yes, they got.
The surprise of a bright blue lake with green trees in the fields of grass
was only outdone by the fact that the lake was teaming with lazy, crazy HIPPOS!
Because the lake was shallow, every few minutes they would lift their stubby legs and take a full belly roll over with their feet sticking straight in the grunt-filled air. We couldn't stop laughing.
Although a few of these photos show a couple vehicles, I'm guessing we didn't see more than 10 the whole morning.
But most of them made it for our most exciting sighting of the day (scroll forward to avoid seeing if you prefer!): the male face off over the kill. Our guide could sense something might be coming, so as other drivers pulled away, he pulled forward, and a male prowled in by the kill where this guy was calmly chewing.
He came up and made a show of being there, wanting some meat, and as the other lion climbed on top of the antelope too protect it,
he then dove for it!
But the guy who initially had it kept it in the end, and everyone went back to their day.
Wildbeest as far as the eye could see filled the crater
and they sure are weird-looking things! They galloped a bit like a see-saw.
Last but not least: the monkeys, oh my heart.
The babies were the cute.est. thing, and the mamas ate bugs out of their babies eyes and ears like there was nothing to it.
All day, the quiet, the peace of the wild things in the complex, beautiful circle of life.
The next morning, we left the incredible Crater Lodge and descended the muddy roads as it started to rain. The soft dirt transformed to a sheet of mud, and many trucks were spinning their wheels on the slope. Our guide told us, at the bottom, how grateful he was to be done with that little adventure.
On to the next: Lobo Valley!