Friday, 17 September 2010

Part 3 - Ngorongoro Crater

Mountain pass from Iringa to Morogoro
Mountain passes – Iringa to Morogoro, Tanzania
The drive from Iringa to Morogoro took a bit longer than expected.  The road was pretty good for about the first 50 km going through some spectacular scenery.  It’s along the mountain range and you need to go through some passes to get through.  The first pass was pretty steep along winding roads with quite a few bumps.  It’s here where we managed to lose part of the hi-lift jack strapped to the roof. 

From there the road got decidedly slower – they are currently doing road works along the mountain and that involved a lot of stopping and starting and bad roads in between.  There was also noticeably a lot more cars and buses flying along which made concentrating on the roads really important.  Actually along one the bends, there was a massive accident of 2 trucks – how they managed to do it we have no idea.

Police checks and Morogoro
We were stopped again at a police roadblock, something we’d now got used to.  But this time we weren’t as lucky to get waved through.  The first thing the officer spotted was our 2nd spare tyre wedged behind the driver’s seat, which apparently is not allowed.   And then he saw that Dru was wearing slops and not shoes (despite the warning on the way to Iringa that we had gotten about the same thing…).  So then he wanted to see Dru’s licence and fine us TSH 40000 (about P200 / $30) for the transgressions.  Luckily after Dru’s sweet talking we got off without a fine.  But needless to say, Dru won’t be making that same mistake again… again! 
Morogoro is a bustling little town full of motorbikes.  We stopped to get some money and fuel before heading out again.  The town is on the foot of the Usambara mountains and as a result the water from the mountains flows down into the catchment areas, which means plenty of fresh produce – must more than just the onions and tomatoes that we’d seen so far.
Accommodation at the Mombo Motel
The Mombo Motel – Mombo, Tanzania
The whole afternoon we were driving between 2 mountain ranges and it rained virtually all the way, making the going really slow.  We figured that we’d get to Mombo just before dark, but there was nothing in either of our 2 guidebooks about where to stay in Mombo – not a good sign.  But it is the turnoff to a place called Soni, which sounded really nice and there is plenty of accommodation around the town.  Good place to stay the night, or so we thought…
What the guide books didn’t mention was the road to get there - We thought it would just be a dirt track off the main road – we were wrong!  Africa tends to use road signs sparingly, so when there’s a big sign saying there are winding roads and steep climbs, take heed!!  It was awful.  The tarred road is barely wide enough for 2 cars, it’s steep with very twisting bends, and it climbs up at mountain at an incredible rate. 

It’s made worse by the fact that there are no actual railings along the road – there’s only one way down if you miss the road!  It was made worse by the rain and mist, which got worse the higher we got, until we couldn’t see in front of us.   After 5 km of the 25 km we had to do, we decided to cut our losses – it just wasn’t worth it.  So after a bit of a precarious U-turn on the mountain with some locals looking on, we headed back down getting back to Mombo when it was already dark. 

So that’s how we ended up in the only accommodation in Mombo – the very dodgy hotel, and where you need to go to some pitch dark shack outside the hotel to get beer.  But in the end we survived, and so did the car, and we were able to leave for Arusha first thing in the morning.
I’m very amused by the transport methods used by the guys in the areas.  For them the bicycle is definitely not recreational, but a way of moving things around.  We saw so many overloaded bicycles, motorbikes and cars all through Tanzania, with everything imaginable being transported, from people to charcoal to water – everything needed for daily life. 

And they cycle up and down mountains with not effort that would make professional cyclists struggle – it’s a really hard way of life.  These guys were photographed between Moshi and Arusha, an 80 km stretch of just people, shops and more people.  We finally reached Arusha by lunchtime and after finding a supermarket, which included ice (at last) and red wine, we headed out to check the Ngorongoro Crater. 
Our 1st view of the Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Crater
It took us about 2 hours to get to the Crater gate, through nicely tarred roads and some beautiful views of the Maasai Steppes.  After passing through Karatu and stopping to buy some bananas in Mto Wa MBu (beware the hawkers!) we got to the gate just before closing. 

It wasn't our intention to go in for the night, but just find out some information, but in the end decided to head in.  Basically the way the crater works is like so - you pay $50 pppn park fee, then $30 pppn camping fee, and $40 pn for the car.  This is just to get into the NCA (Ngorongoro Conservation Area), which protects the Ngorongoro Crater.  To go down into the crater (the crater floor), you need to pay an additional $200 for the day, plus you need to take a guide with you.

So for one day & night in the Crater, it cost us $400... as we heard one guy say - it's the land of the fee, not the land of the free :)  Still it’s something you need to see at least once…

If you've seen our car when we head to the bush, you know we don't pack light, and now relocating to Tanzania, we have a whole lot more stuff.  So we had to spend a big part of our first night at the Crater shifting things around to make space for our guide, but we did manage it in the end.
So finally after a late start (last minute shifting and waiting for our guide Raymond) we finally started the descent into the Crater itself.  Although there is a sign to say use 4WD to get down, Raymond informed us that it wasn't necessary - which is just as well, because it's there that we found that our 4WD isn't working!  Not good...
However, the descent wasn't too bad and is quite a spectacular drive down, getting closer to the floor and Makgadi Lake.  Our first sighting was of a lion (good start) although too far away for a good shot before we headed into the small forest which supports the elephants.  We came across a nice herd with 2 youngsters tussling. 
Coming out of the forest, we headed to the swamp area, which is home to a number of hippos and plenty of waterbirds.  It was also where we saw our first Coke’s hartebeest (Kongoni in KiSwahili) – a lot lighter than the Red hartebeest that we’re used to seeing in Southern Africa. 

There was also a nice big herd of wildebeest as well which was very cool to see, especially since they are so chilled out around the car; it’s a photographer’s dream J Meanwhile Raymond had been on the phone with the rest of the ranges and had heard of a couple of lions, so he directed us that way – to find a male and 2 lionesses. 
We caught up with the lions soon enough, and were surprised to find the male and female were mating.  We stayed with them for quite some time until Raymond heard of another sighting - this time a cheetah.
As we got there the cheetah was sitting up but dropped down as soon as we stopped.  And we had to wait quite a while before he got up again, but it was worth it to get the Magadik Lake in the background. 
Buffalo herd
After the cheetah, Raymond directed us to Hippo Pool – a relatively small body of water with a disproportionately high number of hippos in it.  It was very amusing to watch them roll over and onto their backs every now and then, and constantly flicking mud on themselves with their tails. 
We watched them for a while, as well as a Grey heron attack a Green mamba – it was quite a fight, with the mamba wrapping itself around the heron’s head, but eventually the bird got the better on the snake and wolfed it down in one go.  Oh yes, and in the background was a male lion watching over the veld J
Heron vs Mamba
By now it had moved onto lunchtime so we were shown the picnic site.  And that’s where you could see exactly how many people were in the Crater at once.  Although there had been quite a few cars around each sighting, it was nothing compared to the amount at the picnic site where all but one were game drive or lodge vehicles (we only saw one other self-driver – from Kenya) – probably 30 vehicles by the time we got there with more to arrive.  The picnic site is quite nice overlooking a small lake. 
Hippo on Lake Magadi
The biggest problem are the Black kites that have hover the air and will actually grab the food straight from your hand if you’re not careful, so we were warned about them in advance.  And we could see about 5 of them flying around looking for an easy lunch.
Beware! Kites patrol the picnic site
The birding highlight for us was undoubtedly the Grey crowned cranes.  In all the years that we've been to the bush in Botswana, we'd only ever seen them once and there were 3 of them.  Here they were all over the place. 
I think Raymond was quite amused by our fascination with them - we kept stopping for them and photographing them - there were dozens together and we spent quite a bit of time with them.
The resident wildebeest basically migrate from one side of the crater to the other, not the most exciting thing to do considering the floor is only about 30km by 20km...  You'll find most animals in the crater (including black rhino) except for giraffe - it's too steep for them to get down and the acacia trees don't provide the proper nutrition they need.  Otherwise the rest of the animals can move in and out freely.
One of the amazing things in the crater is the amount and behaviour of the hyenas - there are 700 hyenas on the crater floor, a massive concentration of predators.  For us, who had only seen a maximum of 3 hyenas together at once, along the salt lake there were plenty of them, just unfortunately not close enough for our camera.  We were luckily enough to get a close up of 2 of them - one in the morning and the other one just as we were leaving the crater in the evening.

By now it was starting to get late and time to leave the crater floor, which closes at 6pm.  So we drove towards the ascent road passing yet more wildebeest, zebra and hartebeest on the way.  Dru had tested the 4WD again and came to the conclusion that it was definitely not working.  So hoping the road up wasn’t too steep, especially with a packed car, we made our way off the crater floor. 
It was pretty steep, and there our some hairpin curves up the mountain that you need to take at a relative speed to keep the momentum going, but in the end we made it up, making the gate with about 5 minutes to spare :)
We were pleasantly surprised to find that the campground was less than half occupied compared to the previous night.  And the nice thing was that everyone was camped on the one half of the ground near the kitchen area so the other side was completely free. 
We took advantage of that, setting up camp on the other side of the ground, and the evening was only disturbed by a herd of zebra that chose to graze nearby.  Well, that and a couple of bush pigs that chose to come visit in the night.  Unfortunately I was already in the rooftent and wasn’t able to get any photos, but still – our first sighting of a bush pig.

View of the Crater from the rim at sunrise

It was up early, but not too early since we weren't going into the crater again.  Instead we were heading to the Serengeti.  We took some early morning photos from our rooftent - it's the view of the crater from the campground, shrouded in mist as it was both days early in the morning.  From the crater, it's an 80 km drive to the Serengeti NP gate, but which people say takes 3 hours to do... we had no idea what the road was going to be like, but obviously it couldn't be too good, so after filling up with fuel at the headquarters, it was time to go find out...

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