Tanzania – Part 14: Ngorongoro

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Running Log, 1/4/11 — Rest
Waking in the cold pre-dawn and looking out over the edge of the world from the rim of the great Ngorongoro caldera, Arusha seemed a thousand miles and a lifetime away. It was hard to believe that by the end of the day we would be returning to that dirty and bustling city, would be making plans to celebrate Joni’s birthday with dinner at a restaurant rather than at a dusty campground. And anyway, we had one more journey planned before packing up, so I put thoughts of Arusha out of my head, and tried to focus on our morning excursion, a descent into the crater below. So with the sun not yet up, I dragged myself from our tent, and joined the others for a quick breakfast and another cup of sour instant coffee. Shaking sleep from our eyes, and shivering slightly in the cold, we climbed into the Land Cruiser for the final day of our adventure.

 

The Gift of Life

The origins of the name “Ngorongoro” are obscure, as I found out when I tried to research it online. Some sources claim that the name refers to a tribe of valiant warriors defeated by the Maasai hundred of years ago, others that it is inspired by the word for a type of Maasia bowl or grinding stone, and still others that it refers to the name of a cattle bell maker who lived in the area. Wikipedia claims that the name derives from the Maasai phrase “El-Nkoronkoro,” or “the gift of life,” and while I have little reason to believe that this is the true origin, I like it as much as any of the others.

What is not in dispute is that Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest calderas in the world, and perhaps the largest that has not become a lake.

Descending into Ngorongoro from the rim is not a casual undertaking. Although the floor of the crater covers approximately 100 square miles, there is only one road for vehicles like ours to use to enter the crater, and only one road (a different one) for leaving. Since the rim is 2100 feet higher than the crater floor, these roads are steep and winding. It took us an hour from the time we left our campsite to reach the floor of the caldera where we could begin our explorations. Of course, we were not the only ones who had shaken off sleep to bundle ourselves into trucks in the chilly morning. Numerous Land Cruisers with parties like our own had left before sunrise and were all making their way to the bottom of the caldera.

The Calculus of Survival

There is a quote, attributed to the sprinter Maurice Greene, that goes like this:

“Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be moving.”

That’s a great quote, but I no longer believe it represents reality.

Gazelles don’t behave like restless human runners, trotting around all day in the hot sun, they survive by sticking together and avoiding places where the lions like to hang out. And lions don’t survive by challenging every random Zebra to a footrace, but by sleeping in the shade as much as possible, and hunting when a successful kill is a near certainty. It seemed to me that the animals in Africa demonstrated an almost limitless patience and spent most of their time watching, waiting, and biding their time. If there was one characteristic that seemed common to every creature on the Savannah, it was the desire to avoid unnecessary effort. Which brings me to hyenas.

We had only been driving in Ngorongoro for a 5-10 minutes when we came upon a developing “situation” involving zebras and hyenas. The zebras were grazing, but warily. Nearby, a hyena was approaching but at an agonizingly slow pace. Every so often, the hyena would stop, and look around for reinforcements. We saw that there were other hyenas not far off, and that they were also walking very slowly, almost in formation, approaching the zebras. The zebras kept lifting their heads, looking around, moving off a little ways, re-adjusting their circle. The hyenas kept closing in. Rob pointed out a hyena that was not participating. It looked like its leg had been damaged, and Rob guessed that it had been injured by a swift, powerful kick from one of the adult zebras in the family now being stalked.

This went on for a half an hour, with us not able to take our eyes off the drama. Eventually, we counted seven hyenas in a deadly formation drawing closer and closer to their prey, and we were sure that at any moment they would launch a coordinated attack on the youngest or oldest or weakest member of the herd. Instead, when they reached the moment of truth, they all seemed to look at each other, look at the strong adult zebras staring back at them, and they gave up. They simply dispersed back into the tall grass and saved their energy for another time. Even with seven of them, these hungry predators couldn’t afford to waste calories on a high-risk sortie and get a fatal kick for their trouble. They would wait until another time, perhaps when a foal didn’t stay close enough to its mother, or a a zebra came up lame and couldn’t keep pace when all the others began to run….

The Search for Shade

As in the Serengeti, there were many vehicles driving the dusty roads at the bottom of the crater. All of us were looking for the same big animals, and whenever any one of our vehicles spied something interesting, it was only a matter of time before others would gather. It was not uncommon for two dozen or more Land Rovers to pull of the road in approximately the same spot for the same view of Lions or Rhinos.

So it was that when we saw a mini traffic jam of vehicles, we headed over to see what was going on. Out in the field, we could see three young male lions. This was impressive, but what happened next was unexpected and unforgettable. The first lion got up and began to walk very slowly directly toward us. When he reached our truck, he turned and walked alongside and past it, and then lay down in the shade, directly alongside one of the other vehicles.

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If you have ever seen a lion in a zoo, you have seen an out-of-shape lion, a lion who has not been hitting the weights, a lion who is flabby and untoned. Having a fit lion amble within a few feet of you, it’s impossible not to notice that there is no fat and a LOT of muscle. In that moment, all of the jokes we had made about lions liking to lie around (they do) and being lazy (they are) seemed pathetically beside the point. These creatures are nature’s ultimate sprinting and killing machines, superbly designed for hunting down large quadrupeds and tearing them apart like six-hundred pound breakfast pastries.

And at that moment, this heavily muscled thug just wanted to find a little shade from the mid-day sun. All these land rovers filled with camera-wielding tourists — just an opportunity to get out of the direct sun for a few minutes.

Then, the second lion repeated the same performance. And then the third lion thought it was a good idea, so he came looking for shade, too. I managed to get a video of the third lion:

 

I wonder what the driver of the other car was thinking, with those animals under his window. I know what I was thinking: “close the window!”

Rhinos, Baboons, and a Serval Cat

The picture above was taken from many hundreds of yards away, which was the closest any of us got to the pair of black rhinoceros slowing making their way across the plain.

The rhinos are a sad story, it seems to me. There are very few of them left, having been hunted nearly to extinction for their horns. Within Ngorongoro, the rhinos are under 24-hour protection from poachers.

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There were forests in the crater, and in the forests were our old friends the elephants and the baboons. The first time I had seen baboons in Tarangire, I had been intimidated, but the more I watched them, the more I liked them. In Ngorongoro, we came across a large colony of baboons and spent twenty minutes watching them forage for food, the babies riding on the backs of adults, or clinging to their bellies.

Like the elephants, the baboons seemed mostly to want to be left alone to enjoy life with their large extended families. Here’s another short video of baboons having a nice family dinner… and absolutely nothing happens…

 

Among the other creatures we saw that day were water buffalo, golden cranes, warthogs, Maribu storks, ostriches, wildebeest, secretary birds, and a serval cat… I had never known there was such a species, until Rob spotted this one in the grass.

I like cats, but this was the strangest “cat” I’d ever seen…

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About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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