We rumbled across the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. Jason, Tommy, and I stood on the seats and looked out the roof hole of our knobby-tyred truck. After a while, the sight of wildebeests (gnus) or zebras almost grew ordinary.
They are the chicken of the Serengeti.
Saidi scanned the horizon looking for other species (or perhaps for clusters of Land Rovers).
Safari operators often speak of the "Big Five." This is a linger-longer phrase from the blood-sport days. It does not identify Africa's largest species, but rather the five most difficult/dangerous animals to hunt on foot. The trophy list includes the Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer), the Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), the leopard (Panthera pardus), and the African Lion (Panthera leo).
Out of the "Big Five, the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous. These beasts have mass, speed and smarts (?). They are unpredictable and capable of not only aggressively charging, but ambushing and attacking a target with a colossal crown of horns (or "boss") that stretches like a shield across their heads.
We spotted a small group of buffalo upon our arrival in the crater floor. They were feeding peacefully. We let them stay that way, given that they were big enough to bash our buggy with their burly bosses!
While not one of the "Big Five," we were pleased to encounter ostriches (Struthio camelus). We saw a couple of black and white males in the distance, but lacked the camera lens to reach them. Fortunately a less colorful female intersected our path. Her greyish coloration makes her better able to blend in with her surroundings while nesting.
Imagine the following conversation:
Vicious predator 1: "Is that a nesting ostrich over there?"
Vicious predator 2: "Naw. Just a rock with a periscope."
On two occasions we encountered elephants. Both times the animals were out of the reach of my camera. Our best observation came at the end of the day in an acacia forest. There, we found a group of elephants feeding among the trees.
As promised, Saidi knew where to find the water-holes. We found two and and both occasions they were occupied. In the first was a "bloat" or "crash" (Would I kid you? These are real terms!) of hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) numbering twenty or thirty individuals. Only their backs and noses could be seen above the surface of the muddy water. In the second, three sunbathers enjoyed the warmth of the morning.
Like the Cape Buffalo, hippos can be quite dangerous. However, in our experience, we were more interested in them than they in us.
Looking through binoculars, we may have seen a Black Rhino. I say "may" because it was just a speck. Saidi thought it was. It looked like a rock to me. The elusive leopard was nowhere to be seen. The same was true of the cheetah.
Saidi steered our vehicle up a dirt track where three or four other rigs were parked. We settled among them and finally found the big cats we had hoped to find.
Two lionesses and four or five large cubs were sunning themselves on a hill. Below was a stream. The Simba were content to lounge. Saidi pointed out why.
About fifty yards to our right was a kill site. The lions had eaten their fill and now the scavengers were taking the scraps. Hyenas pulled at the dangly legs of the kill (zebra, I think), fussing, whooping, giggling, crunching, and groaning. They eyed the lions through all of this, nervously worried that the big predators would return for another helping.
If one of the cats even twitched an ear, the hyenas would whoop and scatter. When the cat resumed its nap the hyenas slowly returned to the carcass. The cycle repeated itself over and over again. A cat would flip over. The nervous hyenas went mad. We found it hilarious.
Finally, as if bored with it all, one lioness arose. The hyenas screeched and scattered again. She got a drink from the stream and then turned and walked straight toward our pod of trucks. Eyes grew wide. Camera were dropped. Those who were hanging off the top of their rigs tumbled into their holes faster than a prairie dog pucker-whistle. Windows were rolled up. Doors locked. Faces pressed against the glass.
The lioness, indifferent to our fuss, sauntered past. She climbed hill on the other side of the trucks, whiffed, then disappeared. I know what she was thinking:
Just another day in the life of those Serengeti chickens.
We didn't get to see all of the "Big Five" in Ngorongoro Crater, but our the experience of natural Africa was rich, entertaining, and in the end, just a little exciting.
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.