Monday, 2 February 2015


All Ngorongoro is one great flow of water, nutrients, genes and energy. It began two or three million years ago with a flow of lava and ash which levelled the Serengeti, birthing the hoof-trodden plains which dominate today.

Water flows from springs in the volcanic rock, feeding permanent wetlands in the Ngorongoro Crater. The grass here is lusher by far than in the Serengeti. Hence animals live here year-round in astonishing diversity and numbers, without the need to migrate.

This water, the energy of the African sun, and carbon from the earth's atmosphere, stored by the grasses on the crater floor, feed tens of thousand of mouths: zebras, elephants, black rhinos, Grant's and Thomson's gazelles, eland, hartebeest and wildebeest, we saw them all today. The wildebeest are calving in the crater now. We witnessed the birth of a toffee-coloured calf at twelve minutes past nine. At eighteen minutes past it took its first haphazard steps around its mother, hemmed in by aunts and their own newborns.

The afterbirths of the wildebeest are too much energy and protein to squander. A golden jackal trotted between the wildebeest mothers, keeping a wary eye on their swinging, defensive horns, on the lookout for spent placentas. Finding one the little jackal began to gorge but was quickly joined by white-backed vultures, a steppe eagle and a marabou. The vultures taunted the jackal which spun snarling in angry circles. Meanwhile the marabou, stained down its neck in blood, pinched the prize and ate it in big-billed gulps. The jackal retreated, but found another afterbirth and the cycle began again. Elsewhere a golden jackal chewed at an Abdim's stork it had killed, one of hundreds of storks which paced the plain between the herds of wildebeest and zebra.

Over the heads of the herds were thousands of barn swallows, diving at flies. These are birds which soon will flow north, with the shovelers, green sandpipers and white storks we saw here, to repopulate Europe for the summer, taking with them the water and sunshine of Ngorongoro.

Two lion kills from last night lay along our way. At the first there were seventeen lions, most now dozing rotundly, the males right by the road. Only a couple of cubs still chewed at the bones of the buffalo which had given its life in the night. Grass become buffalo become lion. As white-necked ravens dropped to the kill one of the cubs took exception and stalked them clumsily through the grass. This buffalo was for lions and not for ravens. Soon though it would be for black-backed jackals, three of which circled hungrily waiting for the last lion to slip into the cool of the creek's shade before taking their tiny share of the great beast.

The other kill was done. Just three lionesses and two cubs from different litters sat in the grass, sated. Around them was a halo of hyenas, each pushing forward in head-hanging hope. Four of the lions moved to the the shade of one of our vehicles and the hyenas quickly covered the area, checking each spot for bloody leftovers to fill their morning bellies.

These spotted hyenas, great cleaners of Ngorongoro, were all over the crater. But they too must be part, in the end, of this flow. For the first time in either Richard or George's years of work, we saw white-backed and lappet-faced vultures squabbling round the ribcage of a freshly dead hyena, its lifeless face grimacing across the savannah. Perhaps it was ill, perhaps it was slain by a lion, perhaps it was kicked by a zebra. The vultures were pleased, however it died: a foe in life become a meal in death.

Just as genes flow from mother wildebeest to slimy, wobbly calf, and energy flows from sun to grass, grass to grazers, grazers to predators, and finally from predators to scavengers and the soil, there is a flow of humans here too. The Maasai, who once called the crater home, still bring down their cattle to water and salt, before flowing again to the rim and their villages. And each day from the rim there come jeeps full of westerners. This, for them, for us, is a once-in-a-life flow: to see the last of great Africa, to watch as lions devour their kill, as a new wildebeest comes into the wild world, and as jackals scavenge the afterbirth, lest its precious energy should go to waste.

Each of us is in our jeeps is humbly grateful to be witness and part of this flow.

Simba selfie


  1. Hi Nick Its cold and been snowing here in Norfolk but reading your eloquently written blog brings warmth to my bones - and an urge to book onto your next Big Cat trip. It sounds wonderful. Keep up the excellent work, and thank you. Dave G

  2. Great to have you along for the journey; and many thanks to you. My African leg could not have been more successful. Asia in a fortnight. Fingers crossed.