Imagine Mount Kilimanjaro collapsing in a pile of ash. The last time Ngorongoro blew it’s top three million years ago, that’s exactly what happened. Its volcanic cone – believed to have stood even higher than Kilimanjaro – collapsed, to form the world’s largest intact caldera. Today, Ngorongoro Crater is a gigantic natural stadium. Surrounded by steep palisades, the crater floor teems with wildlife of all sizes. Over 30 000 animals live there, including all of the Big Five.
“Look out for the three famous lion brothers,” says our guide Mustafa, “they have big black manes like Bob Marley.” Lions are plentiful in the crater and so are spotted hyena, which are the most efficient and prolific predator there. They roam the crater floor in packs and have afforded Ngorongoro the formidable reputation of ‘home to the highest density of predators in Africa’. But the crater is a place of fine dining for predators, with thousands of wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and a myriad of other wildlife to choose from. In the literally hundreds of times, Mustafa has visited Ngorongoro, he says he has never seen a thin lion or hyena, nor any other thin animal for that matter. The crater floor is a garden of plenty, supporting vast grasslands as well as a lacy-topped fever tree forest. There’s plenty of food for everyone.
The Lerai Forest in the southern crater is where the elephant live. And they wallow and bath in the Mandusi Swamp on the caldera’s far western side. They’re all big tuskers here, like in the Africa of old, yet all are bulls. Elephant cows and calves don’t wander into the crater; possibly because of the inaccessibility for the calves of the 610m sheer crater walls. This gradient is also too steep for giraffe, which are conspicuously absent in this otherwise complete animal kingdom – where all the residents are free to come and go as they please.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers a vast 8 000km², of which the crater floor accounts for 260km². It was originally part of the Serengeti National Park, but was reclassified a conservation area in 1959. This was in order to accommodate the 40 000 Maasai who live in the area – and wanted to graze and water their cattle in the crater. It’s fitting then that Ngorongoro is a Maasai word derived from the sound made by their cattle’s bells. However, other explanations are also offered for Ngorongoro’s meaning, including the Maasai word for ‘bowl’. Whichever it is, the origin of the name is definitely Maasai.
Next stop: Serengeti.
This remains one of the great wildlife reserves of Africa. Known primarily for the wildebeest migration and dense predator population, Serengeti is a true wildlife Eden. The plains are simply wall-to-wall with animal life. Mustafa has seen the Serengeti wildebeest migration literally hundreds of times, and still the animals’ antics tickle him. “They’re real clowns, you know. Just look at that wildebeest running like a mad thing, all on his own. What does he imagine is chasing him?”
With all the hype about Serengeti, you’d expect the Park to disappoint. It doesn’t. Serengeti is all it claims to be. Situated in northern Tanzania, Serengeti National Park is 15 000km² of savannah plains, acacia woodlands and scattered granite outcrops. Proclaimed a national park in 1951 and now also a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, the Serengeti ecosystem is bigger than Switzerland. It’s densely populated with wildlife, especially wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle and Burchell’s zebra. Hundreds of lion follow the huge herds and impala, eland, topi and Grant’s gazelle – watched on from high by the patchwork-coated Maasai giraffe that frequent the more wooded areas. But the Serengeti lions have also taken to the trees for better vantage, and to see lions ‘nesting’ in branches is not completely unusual in the area. The Maasai call the area ‘Siringit’ which means ‘the place of endless space’. Though they are no longer allowed to graze their cattle on the Serengeti plains, the Maasai have inhabited the area since the 17th century. Evidence of this can be seen at the Moru Kopjes with their well-preserved Maasai rock paintings.
“For me, the best time to be in Serengeti is January and February,” says Mustafa, “then you can drive into the middle of a huge herd and everywhere around you they’re just dropping, dropping, dropping. There are wildebeest babies everywhere. You just can’t imagine it.”
As we head back to our camp on the banks of the Grumeti River, we drive in silence. The sheer numbers of animals on the Serengeti plains is enough to overwhelm the most blasé wildlife lover.
Every species in Serengeti travels en masse. Wildebeest are in herds of thousands, zebra in hundreds, Thomson’s gazelle in masses that resemble fleas filtering through the grass, olive baboons in troops so large the chaos they cause is like a soap opera. Even the lions of Serengeti travel in prides of a dozen or more.
Watching the sun sink into the plains marks another perfect day in Africa. Close by a weighty elephant bull is dining on branches; snapping them like matchsticks. In the surrounding trees a cacophony of shrieks and yelps signal bedtime for infant baboons, who protest like human babies. A hyena laughs out loud in the distance and jackals call each other across the plains announcing their dinner venue. This is true, untouched Africa.
In the morning, tracks indicate lion passed through the camp during the night, along with a few curious bush pigs. Lest we forget that we are after all the intruders, even though we paid Park fees.
Zanzibar is also Tanzania, but feels like another country. Here relaxation reaches its zenith and there’s both vibrancy and antiquity that is reminiscent of old Africa. We’re in Stone Town, the Old Quarter of Zanzibar Town, where little has changed in the past 200 years. When most of the houses in Stone Town were built in the 19th century, coralline rock was used – which is good for building but erodes very easily. So these old buildings are now being restored to their original splendour, since Stone Town is also a World Heritage Site.
Getting lost in Stone Town is the best way to see the place, and this is remarkably easy to do – even with a map. The area is a labyrinth of narrow winding alleys, bustling bazaars, mosques and grand old Arab dwellings. Each worn, quaint street looks much like the next, Swahili women shuffle past with henna-painted hands and feet, always covering their faces for fear of being photographed, hawkers sell all sorts of wares, and bicycles and mopeds weave patiently between the lot. But always, there is the waft of fragrant spices in the air. Cloves, cinnamon, cardamon, cumin, nutmeg, vanilla, black pepper, lemongrass and peppermint add an exotic air to the place, as does the regular call to mosque and the lilting Arabic music heard in the streets.
Across the island from Stone Town, life is as relaxed as it gets. Here white talcum powder beaches ribbon out into infinity, lined with palm trees laden with coconuts. The turquoise Indian Ocean is warm and welcoming and the people are friendly and hospitable. In the distance rickety dhows plough the clear waters en route to rich fishing grounds in search of a good catch, often venturing way beyond the horizon – and schools of dolphin frolic closer to shore. Tomorrow we will catch a dhow and spend the day fishing with locals. Maybe we’ll see dolphins up close, but we will definitely get some sunshine and return relaxed and more enchanted with the slow pace of island life – which is absolutely normal for Zanzibaris.