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Down in the depths of wilderness

The Ngorongoro crater, now a dormant volcano, was a tall mountain before it exploded and collapsed two million years ago. The crater has a perfect caldera nearly 20 km across, which you can drive straight down into, writes Mike Pandey.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 27, 2012 16:17 IST
Mike Pandey

The Ngorongoro crater, now a dormant volcano, was a tall mountain before it exploded and collapsed two million years ago. The crater has a perfect caldera nearly 20 km across, which you can drive straight down into. It is home to nearly 30,000 animals and birds. Though situated on the edge of the mighty Serengeti, the animals here do not take part in the annual migration. The 500-metre drive down to the floor of the crater takes you to one of the most spectacular grasslands. Does this translate into the possibility of a quick adrenaline fix?

So it does. More than one, actually. I had one of my closest encounters with a black-maned lion in the depths of this very crater.

Lions versus Hyenas

A large population of the highly endangered black rhinoceros shares the crater floor with an equally powerful carnivore – the formidable black-maned lions of Ngorongoro.

When we entered, a large pride of lions was devouring a kill. The younger females and cubs sat at a distance from what was the carcass of a zebra while adult males fed, snarled and swiped at each other over it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a hyena appeared followed by a dozen more. The smaller, spotted herd began to challenge the lions over the kill. It was a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. Who would concede defeat?

You should know that hyenas have the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom. They can exert enough force to crush through the thigh bone of a buffalo. The lions evidently didn’t want to mess around with their sharp grinders. They backed down bequeathing the hyenas a skeleton and remnants of the carcass. The hyenas wolfed it down in an hour.

Quirks of the jungle

The elephants, too, at the Ngorongoro are worth a mention. They easily bear some of the hugest tusks seen anywhere in Africa, and are yet not as aggressive as their Asian brethren. We watched in awe as a huge, solitary male pachyderm ambled to a tourist vehicle and thrust its ample trunk through an open window. The vehicle lurched as the trunk groped around. Some passengers panicked, some jumped out. But the mammoth creature was soon distracted. It recoiled its trunk, having now wrapped it around a bunch of bananas, and trampled away. Around the same time, we also spotted the classic 75 mph dash of the cheetah as it chased a fleet-footed Thomson’s gazelle.

Ngorongoro is a UNESCO world heritage site and a great destination for wildlife lovers, that has managed to remain unspoilt by human infiltration. The experience of being on the edge becomes all the more memorable if you follow these simple tips

The forest grump

* Silence is golden — Restrain from speaking. If urgent, speak in undertones. Do not make any sudden noises as it tends to startle animals

* Drive slowly. Let animals have their right of way. Avoid using the flash while taking pictures

* Keep edibles, especially bananas, covered in an airtight container as odours can attract animals. Never get off the vehicle especially when animals are around. Wear clothes that aren’t too flashy or bright

* Khaki, dull greens and browns work well as they help you blend with the colours of the jungle. Carry all your waste back for safe disposal. Do not collect specimens or souvenirs from the wilderness

* Leave the park just as it was when you came in

Animals in Ngorongoro are not shy, and you can watch them at close quarters. But don’t be fooled by their easy demeanour. They move and charge at the speed of lightning. My close encounter with one such animal is fresh in my mind. But I shall leave that for next time.

Pandey is a Green Oscar-winning wildlife filmmaker.