The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the often overlooked treasures of northern Tanzania as it sits next to one of the best known parks, the Serengeti. To start our adventure, which requires a decent of 900 meters, Ben had us up at 6am so we could catch sunrise in the crater.
We woke up to a very chilly morning; it was barely above freezing and a dense fog sat over the crater and our hotel. Ben was constantly having to wipe down the windshield to fight the condensation - it was like driving through a cloud. Barely able to see the road ahead of him, Ben slowly crept the jeep towards the edge of the crater. I knew the crater was on my right side as we drove and just kept watching to make sure there was some visible road out the window as there was almost no way to know if you were about to dive off a cliff!
Eventually we arrived at the gate for the crater descent road and the sun was just starting to put some light into the sky. This significantly helped and within minutes we’d gone from virtually zero visibility to several meters. Beginning the decent onto the steep crater road, we were welcomed with some wonderful photographic surprises. First, the sun penetrating through the clouds offered some spectacular beams of neon pink light. Second, from below the cloud line, we could look up at see big dramatic clouds ‘stuck’ on the edge of the crater. In the soft morning light, it was a photographer’s dream. Not only did I get busy with my Nikon, I also pulled out the Rolleiflex 120mm film camera and fired off several images onto some color Kodak Ektar film.
Our journey into the crater had one specific goal - Rhino! Unfortunately, in talking with other visitors over the course of our journey who had been to Ngorongoro before us, no one had seen a rhino. It sounded like it had been several days or even weeks without a spotting. The rarity of this animal cannot be overstated; there are estimated to be less than 50 left in the entire country as poaching largely destroyed the population. Even though these black rhino are now under guard and protection from poachers, the rhino is not quick to reproduce, so restoring the population will take centuries. Ngorongoro is considered the best place to look for these animals because it’s estimated that up to 50% of Tanzania’s rhino population lives in this crater. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make things easier; the rhino is very particular about certain weather conditions like wind and seeing just one in the distance is a treat for visitors.
We drove around the crater spotting the usual assortment of animals - zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, lion, warthog - but all eyes were focused on finding a black dot on the horizon that would belong to a rhino. There were plenty of false alarms; the crater is also home to the water buffalo, which looks very similar from a distance!
Over the radio, in Swahili, came the call. A pair of rhino had been spotted walking in some grassy fields. We tore over to that area and stopped the jeep. Scanning the horizon it was possible see two little black dots with horns - two rhino. We were elated. It was too far to take pictures, but looking through the binoculars we could make out the faint shapes of the rhino.
We felt very lucky to see these rhino at all. Our search for the “safari big 5” (the name given to the five animals most safari-goers hope to see: rhino, lion, elephant, water buffalo, and leopard) was over.
We continued the drive and made friends with several groups of lions, including some cubs that again decided the best shade was found next to and under safari jeeps. Time in the crater is limited, as is the number of vehicles allowed in at any one time, and we knew our morning in the crater was rapidly coming to an end. Around noon, Ben started to speed up and joined a line of other jeeps that was driving quickly down a main road. We assumed this was part of the jeep migration out of the crater and thought little of it.
A moment later we joined a long line of safari jeeps; here was another (different) rhino and he was very close. Very close. For the next 45 minutes, we watched this animal walk around the grass, at one point coming very close to the car, before walking past. I rattled off hundreds of shots; the rhino walks with his head down and in the grass so rapid shooting was key to see his horns in the breaks of the grass.
We were exceptionally lucky. To see even one rhino is a treat and we thought two at a distance was fantastic, but here was a third rhino very close to us. Morale in the jeep was very high as we exited the crater for our next adventure.