We awoke to the vibrating alarm at 6, but we had a little trouble getting out of bed. Luckily, we managed to avert sleepie disaster and were the second ones to breakfast, ahead of the staff, even. As we had predicted, most people were rather late for the morning meal, and people were still eating at 7:30 when we settled up the (huge — $13) laundry bill.
It had rained most of the night, and much of the breakfast conversation revolved around whether or not we would be able to get into the Ngorongoro Crater. The roads in the parks are not paved as a matter of deliberate policy. Shange assured us that we would make it, so we packed up the Land Cruisers and headed out. Even though the Plantation Lodge is only 10 miles from the Crater, the drive was quite long due to the rain. At the park gate, we saw our first animals: a troop of baboons that hang out, presumably in hopes of snagging some food. The drive to the Crater rim was through dense greenery, though we did see a herd of elephants, one of whom stood in the road studying us for a bit before deciding that we were harmless. When we reached the rim, the low-lying clouds made it impossible to see the Crater floor, and the drive down felt like something out of Jurassic Park.
When we descended below the cloud line, it was like entering Eden. The floor of the Crater is mostly grassland, punctuated with rivers, lakes and stands of acacia trees. Because it is relatively warm and lush year round, the Crater teems with animals. In addition to massive herds of wildebeests and zebras (both with foals) and smaller bachelor herds of cape buffalo, we saw a few Grant's gazelles, a number of Thomson's gazelles, some warthogs, troops of baboons and vervet monkeys and a herd of hippos mating in a pond (including three who trundled in late, so we got to see them outside the water). We saw several rarer animals, including a large spotted hyena (looking every bit as shaggy and intimidating as we expected), a few eland (the largest antelopes, but quite shy), hartebeests and a pair of jackals. The birdlife included buzzards, beautiful crowned cranes, many Abdim's storks, ostriches, cattle egrets (hanging out with the cape buffalo), flamingos (in various states of pinkness, depending on the length of their stay) and kori bustards (the largest flying bird, they can weigh 40 lbs!).
The two highlights of our visit to the Crater, though, were the rhinos and the lions. We saw three black rhinos (two females and a young one), at first from quite far away, and later from much closer. We watched the sleep and browse for a bit. They seemed blissfully unaware of the tourists swarming around them. The lions, on the other hand, were very well aware of our presence, as they used the Land Cruisers as umbrellas and stretched out alongside in the shade. We saw 11 lions in the pride, including two males and three adorable cubs. The cubs rolled around for a while before settling under our Land Cruiser! When we wanted to leave, another safari jeep came up and revved its engine loudly, which startled the lions enough that they moved off and we could drive away without injuring them.
It rained a bit while we were in the Crater, as well as for most of our ascent back to the rim. The rain fell steadily during the drive to our tented camp, making the hilly, winding dirt roads into trecherous mud slip-n-slides. Only Shange's skill kept us from getting stuck in the mud ruts or overturning when we lost traction on a hairpin turn. By the time we reached the camp, our nerves were a bit on edge!
We stopped in the mess tents for some hot, spiced tea, and met the chief of the local Masai village, Olidorop, who spoke excellent English. Then the porters with umbrellas carried our luggage to our tents. Jess was very grateful to exchange her long-sleeved overshirt for a warm, fuzzy fleece. Jer headed back to the mess tent for drinks, while Jess chilled out in our tent for a bit. The sound of Masai chanting roused her, and she was ready to go when Jer came back to help her back to the mess tent. Outside the mess tent, a group of Masai children (boys and girls, aged probably 8 to 14 or so) were chanting, while the boys demonstrated a jumping dance that is part of their initiation to adulthood. The tallest boy was quite a strong jumper - we were impressed. Jer and Joe tried a little jumping too, but the slippery mud prevented them from achieving maximum altitude. One of the girls had a very ornate headdress, but sadly it was too dark to take good photos.
Another pair of Americans arrived during the performance, and they and their guides joined us for dinner. We had leek soup, beef in gravy, roast potatoes, marvelous cauliflower in cheese sauce and salad, followed by creme caramel and chocolate puddle pudding (aka brownies). Well fed, we trundled off to our slightly damp beds, and for once we were glad to have heavy duvets!