It may have been the largest mountain in Africa, even bigger than Kilimanjaro. Until that fateful day when it wasn't anymore.
It rested on the southern end of the East African Rift (EAR), the same crustal disturbance responsible for pushing out a few other mighty volcanoes: Kilimanjaro, Meru, and Kenya, to name a few. Earthen forces pushed this blister out too. And judging from the pockmark left after its burst, it was big!
Ngorongoro Crater measures slightly more than one-hundred square miles in area. The crater rim rises 2,000 feet above its inner floor (which still rings in at more than mile above sea level). We can only guess how high the original volcano towered above its present remains.
We are left guessing because the volcano committed the geological version of hari-kari; it disgorged its own innards. Unsupported, the shell that remained tumbled down its own throat. This cataclysmic event happened more than a million years ago, give or take a hand grenade--or atomic bomb. And when the ash and dust finally settled, the most perfectly preserved non-flooded caldera in the world was left standing (I threw in the "non-flooded" part to avoid offending all my homies near Crater Lake, Oregon.).
Today, the crater highlands are Maasai country, the privileged residents of the Ngorongoro region. They are herders who live on blood, meat, and gristle; farming is not their style. We passed the thatched roofs of their villages, few and scattered, as our knobby-tyred truck climbed higher and higher.
The land yawned like a Wyoming dawn. The opportunity in front of us was equally wide. We had a full day to spend and I was pumped. Tommy and Jason visibly shared this emotion.
However, as we gained elevation, the highland forest began closing in on us. Soon we found ourselves rolling down a corridor of green.
We did the obligatory stop at the ranger station/information center and paid the entrance fee. The usual books, brochures, stickers, and patches were for sale. The books were tempting, of course, but my bag was full. I had to content myself with consuming sign-boards and displays as quickly as possible.
I learned that the crater itself represents only 3% of what is now known as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Its eastern boundary is formed by the western wall of the Great Rift Valley while its western boundary is painted with a softer brush; "crater country" gives way to the Serengeti National Park. Between these features a highland zone balances uncomfortably on a plastic base folded and ruptured by deep forces. I also learned the meaning of the term ngorongoro: "big hole."* It's a funny name for a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded by many as the "eighth wonder of the world."**
We climbed back into our rig and set off on a road with the surface of a washboard. We bounced through dense forest, not fully aware that we were so close to the crater. A clearing appeared and Saidi pulled over. The three of us jumped out and stepped to the edge illuminated by morning light.
It was stunning.
No camera lens could take it in.
It is a memory that I'll carry for a lifetime.
The rim ran away from us in opposite directions, circled around, and according to the map, met again somewhere in the distant clouds. It was a perfect bowl. Peering down the steep slope, the landscape changed dramatically from a rim of green to a floor of ochre.
Lines suggestive of rivers snaked across it. These emptied into a lake that had no exit.
Tiny flecks could be seen on the floor. I did not recognize them for what they were, but after Saidi's instruction, I realized that these were not trees or bushes or rocks, but vast herds and flocks. As I studied them, I could see their formations moving, slowly, changing; they were constellations of pixelated shadows dancing against a grassy plain. By the wisdom of the Creator, the cataclysm that shaped this earthen bowl produced a harbor teeming with life.
That morning, the three of us stood on that precipice--Jason, Tommy, and myself--and peered into one the most concentrated biological collections in Africa, and indeed, maybe even on the planet. It caught my breath. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
But I did know this: we had to go down.
*Others claim the term Ngorongoro comes from the sound made by the cowbell (ngoro ngoro).
**The idea that Ngorongoro is the "Eighth Wonder of the World" is drawn from the title of a volume on the crater published by Henry Fosbrooke in 1972. See his book here.
Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.