Ngorogoro Conservation Area (Crater)
I had heard of the Ngorogoro Crater for many, many years. Always it was about the great variety and number of the animals. Maybe we might even seeing a rhino--no suspense, we didn't. But the place didn't disappoint because there was lots to see and just the open and yet enclosed presence of the crater touched me deeply. Like being in a tall forest, on a mountain, or the wideness of a desert, there is a feeling to me, of being part of the world. Being human fades away to being a part of the planet just as much as the earthworm and the blue whales and the trees and the elephants.
The Ngorogoro Conservation Area (CA) is a protected area and a World Heritage site. As Wikipedia says "The name...has an onomatopoeic origin; ...to the Maasai it is the sound produced by the cowbell (ngoro ngoro)." Whisper it to yourself. "Based on fossil evidence...hominid (human) species have occupied the area for 3 million years." Now, after 3 million years, as of 2015, the Maasai are not allowed to pasture their cattle in the Crater which is a conservation effort to help with the preservation of the wild animals.
The Crater, or caldera, is in the top of the world's largest inactive volcano. The floor covers 100 square miles (260 square kilometres.) There is a rainy side and a more dry side. Our lodging was on the ridge, about 8,000 feet (2,400 metres) above sea level. I think I did have a bit of altitude sickness because of the height.
The number of animals seems to fluctuate with drought and rainy seasons and diseases that affect different species. At one time the number of lions was down to 12 because of canine distemper.
One of the guides spoke about the lions. The Crater lions are larger than those outside the Crater (access to lots of food) so any outside lions are at a disadvantage. Also, at one time, as the outside lions crossed the plains to get to the Crater they were often killed by the Maasai because they were afraid the lions would kill their cattle. An arrangement was made with the Maasai to allow the lions free passage and the government would pay the Maasai for any cattle killed. This is one way they try to help reduce inbreeding in the lions. There are wildlife management issues within and outside the Crater. We saw some controlled burns of grasses, to reduce the chance of huge devastating fires. We also saw those in the Serengeti.
One animal you will not see in the Crater is giraffes. With their long necks, of course they eat tree leaves and the Crater doesn't have a lot of tall trees like acacia trees.
Enough talk-go to the pictures and videos to see what I cannot describe.
Our time in and near the Crater included a visit to a Maasai village (kraal). It seemed that we drove an hour or two to get to there. Of course, as we drove we stopped to take pictures so I cannot be sure how long travelling really takes. This is not the tourist village you typically see in pictures. No singing and jumping up and down. This was arranged by the Topguides Safaris owner who wanted us to have an authentic experience. We were in their home and got to see how they live.
Now that I think about it, I didn't see any evidence of electricity or a water source. But it did seem that the Chief's mobile cell phone worked. So who knows? We didn't explore behind everything.
There were some huts within a surrounding stick enclosure and two round stick enclosures within that--one for cattle and one for goats. There were a lot of each animal (so was the Chief considered rich according to Maasai society? don't know), plus some donkeys wandering around (they are used as pack animals) and one cat.
The Chief's English was very good. He invited us, one small group at a time, into one of the mud-walled huts where he told a bit about their life. Inside the hut we could not see each other, it was that dark. There were a couple of small slits at the top of the walls to let in a little light. The Chief used a small wind-up flashlight to help us get settled on a log.
As our eyes adjusted we could see we were in a medium sized room with a fire pit in the middle, used for heating and cooking. (Many of us noticed the padlocks on the doors to the huts. Surely they didn't worry about thieves. He said they were there because the children were fascinated with the fires and had set one of the huts on fire. Typical kids.) A couple of really small rooms held supplies and firewood. Two larger rooms were elevated and these were the sleeping rooms. One room was where the mother with small children slept, the other was for the Chief. He had three wives and each had their own hut so he moved from hut to hut. The older children slept in the two huts he was not in.
In Tanzania marriage to up to three women is legal but the ceremony can only be done as a civil marriage. To be married in a church, only one wife is allowed.
Outside again, we were encouraged to take pictures of whatever we wanted. No one really posed but allowed us to take their picture, maybe shyly, with the little ones holding a baby goat or just going about their business. Little ones herding cattle. I only saw one young man. He had long, braided hair with beads in it. A beautiful smile and was very gentle with the small children. We wandered around, followed by kids. They loved looking at their pictures in our cameras. Someone gave one of them their camera to take a few pictures and they loved that. The women set up shop on a blanket with their bead work. Traditional wide necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, which many of us bought.
It was a very special treat being there. Everyone was easy going and seemed happy to see us. The little ones were so cute. Some children wore "western" clothes, most wore the shuka, cloth blankets, around them, as did everyone else.
The Maasai seem to have a quiet, gentle life. The Chief takes care of the problems and guides them. Some Maasai children go to school. Whether school is taught in Maa (their language) or Swahili, I don't know. How far would they advance? The Government wants the children to be educated but I don't know how easy or practical that is for them out in the country. Health care is also an issue. We did see a clinic or two as we traveled but again, is the health care the type that they need and does it align with their traditional society? And does the clinic staff (non-Maasai) understand the society? Apparently the Maasai are reluctant to give up their pastoral life to live in cities. Indeed, I heard comments that the Maasai that do lived near the cities, or roamed the beaches of Zanzibar selling trinkets weren't real Maasai. They were just dressing up for the tourists.
I heard a story of how the Maasai managed to hold onto their lands for so long even as the colonists were trying to move them. The story says the Maasai covered themselves, hair and clothes, with blood from their cattle. In the heat they would get quite ripe so the colonists avoided going to them because of the smell. I have not been able to verify the story but I like it. Clever people! More power to them!