Epic circle of life on passing parade

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

A return visit to the diversely populated conservation area that is Ngorongoro Crater.

We’re up with the larks, leaving the comfortable forest tented camp in the dark and driving over the lip of Ngorongoro Crater.

Its saucer bottom seems another world — lush, green, short grassed and full of wildlife that live in some sort of enclosed nirvana.

Thunder has been rolling around the sharp edge of the world’s biggest unbroken volcanic caldera all night. Rain on the canvas. Although cloud edges the rim and sits in cotton strands in the bottom, with the dawn, patches of sun immediately break through.

And right here, beside the safari vehicle, with its roof lifted, a rufous-naped lark sings in the morning. A hymn to the dawn in Tanzania.

Wildlife guide and friend Hamisi Nyati and I see elephants like minuscule matt figurines against the tall pastel wall of the crater. We see pink-nostrilled hippos jawing in a perfectly landscaped pool. We see dazzles of bristle-maned zebra and big herds of wildebeest with many young. We watch 15 lions sleeping together, a big hyena  loping past. There is the crazy chatter of Speke’s weaver birds, the mirage of flamingos on the shimmering lake and Hildebrandt’s starling, endemic to this part of East Africa. A steppe eagle’s screaming dive bomb scares two tawny eagles off a kill.

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It is estimated that 25,000 animals live in the 600m-deep crater. It formed three million years ago when a huge volcano, probably 5000m-tall, erupted and collapsed in on itself.

And then Hamisi points way off. “You see the two rhino?” Through my longest camera lens they are still very small. But even with his naked eye, he says, almost disbelievingly: “I think they are going to mate.”

But after some nudging and a scuffle, the two black rhino take off in different directions.

We stop a little further on and, sure enough, they come back together and mate.

“I have to say this is my highlight for my life,” says Hamisi incredulously. “I never expected this. It’s a rare thing. I think the people who have seen a rhino mating are very few.” Then he looks at me: “And there was just the two of us.”

Yes, there are. And yes, Hamisi, it feels like an extraordinary moment shared by two new friends.

Talent is evenly spread around the globe. Opportunity is not. But Tanzania is creating opportunities through well-managed, dynamic tourism that has engaged the community and created good, interesting jobs with prospects. Primary and secondary education is quite newly free in Tanzania, and the Government contributes half of the cost of university courses. There is an emphasis for these Swahili speakers to learn English “and a foreign language” — many guides speak German, Italian or Spanish.

Tanzania is the most popular destination in East Africa, with tourism earning $US6 billion ($8.01 billion) annually.

At Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp, staff make guests truly welcome. There are three main tents — one a bar, one a dining room, one a lounge — and 12 individual luxury safari tent rooms, lined with fabrics, with crisp linen and, just occasionally, a voice outside, with a handy abbreviation of my name. “Stiv — are you warm enough?” The tent is heated but someone is outside to control the temperature. “Stiv — when would you like your shower?” For they heat the water and, outside, fill up a “bucket shower” for me to have a hot rainfall wash in my private bathroom.

But, for all this, we all connect on a human level. There is not a scripted politeness but a genuine connection and kindness.

These are connections that reach to the roots of humanity. Various hominid species have lived in this area for three million years. Hunter gatherers were replaced thousands of years ago by pastoralist tribes on this fertile land.

I feel Hamisi’s genuine friendship, too. He tells me about his toddler son, Norman, with his wife Mwasha in Arusha, 200km east of here. He tells me how he works seven days a week for two months then has two weeks off.  He tells me what great opportunities tourism has given him.

When we stop at Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s hippo pool for the spectacular breakfast that Hamisi’s colleagues cheerfully prepared and packed in the dark before we left, two other guides come bouncing up. “Jambo, jambo.” 

Their hello is as warmly for me, a stranger, as for Hamisi, who they’ve known since childhood. Shake-grip-shake. Grin. The brothers’ greeting.

“We went to school together,” he says, as they share our breakfast. “Now we are in the same industry.”

The day feels as epic as the location.

There is a golden jackal, two bat-eared foxes curled asleep, warming in the sun. There are vultures.

Duration: 05m 54s

Hamisi has a good eye for a picture. He sees the light shift, and compositions forming and stops in the right spot. 

I feel like a bit of a fraud, just pressing the button. Sanctuary Resorts guides are taught about seeing good light and framing pictures, and Hamisi has guided for other international photographers.

“It’s all about position,” he says, summing up wildlife photography more succinctly than many books on the subject.

And then, finally, we stop to photograph a young Burchell’s zebra posing in front of his mother. 

Photographing zebras is the best fun. They zigzag together, often feed close together in pairs, and constantly recompose graphic pictures before the camera.

And, of course, they are complicit in waiting for an apt moment to walk over a track in front of the camera. Everyone loves a picture of a zebra crossing. 

And then there’s birdsong — a sharp, repeated phrase of a flappet lark.

This day has completed its circle, from a dawn underscored by song to a mighty crescendo and this, nature’s evensong. Some days, we are reminded how simple it is to just be human on this heavenly Earth.

PS: I’m sitting on the timber deck outside the front of my safari tent writing this — at Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp, on the crater rim, overlooking jungle and primordial red-thorned acacia.

I’m brought a pot of rich, African coffee. “How was your morning,” Alex asks.

And how, precisely, do you answer a question like that?

Duration: 02m55s

Fact File


Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Abercrombie and Kent. They have not seen or approved this story.


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