Misty morning at the crater

Trip Start May 25, 2003
Trip End Jun 07, 2003

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Friday, May 30, 2003

5/30 Friday

Another early morning game drive with Augustin and our new driver, Lotelu, plus check out as we'll be leaving for Ngorongoro after lunch. Lake Manyara is in the rift valley below the hotel. It's
famous for birds, tree climbing lions, hippos, and leopards. We see plenty of elephants, impala, wart hogs, and cape buffalo. But no lions or leopards. We do get to see a dikdik up close. Considering their size, that's pretty impressive.

We spot a hippo moving slowly but steadily through the bush then on down the winding road. We arrive at the Hippo Pool- a delta basin of fresh water from mountain springs that feeds into the salt lake. The fresh water pool is also the resting spot for thousands of storks of several species and all sizes, plus pelicans and, beyond at the salt lake edge, of pink flamingos. From a distance, the flamingos look like pink sticks in the water. We can't get any closer to the lake- need to keep to the road.

The park is filled with colorful birds, including weavers, rollers, love birds, and bee eaters. We're lucky that they rest in one spot long enough for photos. The park also has some beautiful baobab trees. We spend the morning in the park searching for leopards with no luck. We return to the hotel for lunch and then leave about 1:30 for Ngorongoro.

Our beautiful smooth asphalt road is gone. Instead, we have the same red, rocky, pitted, dirt road that we drove on in Kenya en route to Tanzania. It's a long, bouncy ride. We finally arrive at the park gate about 3:30, but have another hour ride around the rim of the crater to reach our hotel.

The crater rim is socked in with fog and misty rain. The forest is very lush and green, but cool and wet. Occasionally, the mist breaks and we can see down into the crater. Lotelu suddenly breaks-just another pot hole? NO! We'd stumbled upon a leopard crossing the road. He and Augustin shouted out and we all reacted quickly enough to just glimpse him jumping into the brush. We sat for a second and he jumped again further into the brush and out of sight.

The crater is IMMENSE! Augustin says it's 100 square miles with its diverse climate and ecospheres: there's a grassland area, a salt lake, and forests. Plus there's a marsh area that's referred to as the elephants graveyard. Elderly elephants apparently wander there for food since the marsh grass is tender and easy for them to eat with their worn teeth. But they occasionally get stuck in the marsh and die there.

We finally arrive at the hotel about 4:30. It's at the crater's edge. The lobby has a 2-story window overlooking the crater. Even shrouded in mist it's quite dramatic. We're in bungalows which again are made to look like large thatched huts. They too are two stories and house 4 units each.
The rooms are large as is the bathroom, but they seem to have a shortage of light bulbs. There's an enclosed balcony area set off from the rest of the room by a step down and tiled instead of carpeted. It has floor to ceiling windows looking out over the crater- my own personal panorama- and includes rocking chairs. Great for viewing the fabulous vista!

Nap time before dinner. We'll have a full day in the crater tomorrow. I hope the weather is in our favor!

5/31 Saturday
Started early again for a day long drive. Very nice hot shower and hot chocolate delivered with the wake up knock- no phones. The morning is cool, wet, misty, windy- not good weather for a drive. But we are promised that the weather in the crater will be better.

The caldera is 102 square miles- about 10 miles across. Inside it there are grassland, forests, lakes, pond, streams...and the diverse animals that inhabit these different areas. We see great mixed herds of gazelles, impala, eland, zebra, wildebeest, and hartebeest grazing plus the occasional warthog and cape buffalo. We stumble upon a pair of lions. The lioness was sound asleep- didn't budge at all. The old boy tried to stay awake, but couldn't handle it. At the end of the day, we saw them again- still at peace.

At one point we saw a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest with 4 lions sleeping in a slight valley below them while 3 rhinos crossed through. All together we spotted rhinos 3 times- 2 solos and the threesome.

We saw a lot of hippos- all under water in several ponds. Our favorite hippo pond had the restrooms for us humans and a picnic areas where we lunched. As soon as we pulled over we were surrounded by very aggressive Superb Starlings- with iridescent blue backs- and the lovely little yellow weaver birds. We sat in the van to eat since Augustin was worried about the kites bothering us- the starlings and weavers though are smaller and cuter. I pointed out a weaver perched on the rear view mirror just behind Lotelu- and realized one was perched above my head a the van top opening.

The van crept through leopard country, but with no luck. Every dappled bough with moss looked like the real thing, but wasn't. We stopped by a van that was  intently eying something. We thought it was the mixed herd on the next rise. But they were looking at a cheetah in the grass. After a great deal of pointing and explaining, it turned out that the only part of the cheetah visible- and that only barely- were the ears, the top of head and occasionally the tail tip. We told Augustin that this definitely didn't count toward the quota.

Lake Manyara was to be the highlight for flamingos, but the trail didn't lead near them. Here in the crater, there are ponds and a good sized soda lake inhabited by flamingos of both varieties. And the Lesser is very, very pink! Lotelu was able to drive right out on the breach of the soda lake where we could watch the flamingos up close. The Greater F. does a funny shuffling dance in order to kick up the "seafood platter" that it eats. They keep their heads down in the water for quite a period of time- upside down- sucking up their favorite dish. At the far end we spotted the Lesser F. carrying on in what appeared to be a flamingo line dance. Some were sitting down in shallow water- all in a line- and splashing their wings then coming back up before repeating the process. Some formed a very tight knit group that moved in lockstep together across the water. All this activity may have something to do with mating rituals.

The day long drive, chris-crossing the caldera moved us between climates as well. We started out in the early morning chill at the top of the rim. As we moved down inside, we could see the sun breaking through in patches. Down on the floor and off came the rain slicker. As the day moved on and warmed, off came the fleece jacket. As we sat in the middle of the afternoon sunshine waiting for the nearly-there cheetah to move, off came the long sleeved shirt. Down to tank top, I hid under my shirt like a tent to avoid the hot sun. Then a cloud came over, bringing rain. On went the shirt. We began heading up the side of the caldera to return to our hotel and on went the fleece. We arrived at the hotel- seemingly in the midst of the same rain as when we left, and on went the rain slicker for the walk back to my room. We'd come full circle in weather.

Tomorrow we'll leave the hotel and drive along the rim back to the entrance and then past it to the opposite side of the caldera. Then we'll descend the other side to begin our drive to the Serengeti.

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