Still curled tightly in a ball, I awoke with a start in the capsule of my sleeping bag – a maroon sack pulled overhead, folded over, and sealed tightly with the weight of my heavy head. It was a two-pant, two-sock, multi-top kind of night; one which had passed slowly as the threat of wild animals filled the night. Outside our canvas walls, moans and groans of magnificent beasts beckoned as they wove in small walkways between tents. Lit only by the Milky Way’s iridescent shine, they had come to observe us in a way which mimicked our own behaviors of the day past and the day to come.
Behind us, a journey through the Serengeti and a visit to a nomadic Maasai tribe’s temporary (and increasingly touristic) village.
Before us, a trip 600 meters below to a 260 square kilometer expanse where both wild animal and nomad exist amicably. At the edge of our camping platform, a cliff obscured by morning’s dense fog led to tens of thousands of animals grazing, roaming, stomping throughout their ever-changing homeland. We’d yet to lay eyes on this masterpiece of cohesiveness over 3 million years old, and still the energy of the earth was undeniable.
While a fear of what lie ahead was nonexistent, a fear of the air and water’s sharp cold bit into us; and after adding layers to the already thick night’s uniform, we twenty tourists loaded into a caravan of all-terrain vehicles to conquer the cloud-covered roads.
As elevation decreased, anticipation increased. Brief sightings of silhouetted evergreens were the foreground to backdrops of open fields scattered with still-miniscule beings.
Zebra, wildebeest, flamingos and elephants were soon spotted as we transcended the unbroken caldera’s rim. More difficult to spot were black rhino and leopard. And never to be seen were impala and mustard brown giraffe, whose lanky limbs are too nimble to descend the crater’s steep sides. Birds of more than 500 species flocked together, most in watering holes and Lake Magadi, a shallow salt lake attracting flamingos in the thousands.
Split into three vehicles, we popped up the tops and ignored the cold breeze whipping at our faces. Before diving deep into the craters zigzagging dirt tracks, we stopped for a stretch in one of few areas car doors are allowed open. At the edge of the parking lot where we stood, a forest overgrown with marula trees began to shake and shiver. Deep in the shadows, a thick trunk wound tightly around a branch four meters high. Squinting into the darkness, we carefully watched as a lone African elephant shook yellow plum-sized fruits from the tree; an act which leads to the fruit falling, fermenting, and intoxicating animals who pick the sweet fruit from the jungle floor.
Once more in the 4x4s, we drove past a small cluster of acacia trees. Our driver’s well-trained eyes caught sight of golden circles moving just below the trees’ arching crown. A pair of lion cubs played in the field, unaware of our presence. While we watched from afar, a colorful bridge formed above the pair, a rainbow perfectly placed over an already beguiling site.
Cackles as easily seen as heard spread through the air. Slowly approaching. Slower, retreating. Teasing, taunting, trying to creep close enough to sample the foul dinner rotting in the bush before them. A game of predator vs. scavenger. A game of survival. A game with no victor.
We were welcomed in as morning’s mist lifted, and left without before noon’s sun shone high above. Retreating to the hills where we’d first noticed faraway specs of zebra and wildebeest, and passing Maasai people on their wayward journey, we left their world without a trace, merely witnesses to a game which continues without end in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater – an eternal masterpiece of wild.