Ferocious Splendor

On our first day in the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania, we saw 13 lions, 5 rhinoceroses, and a small herd of cow elephants with nursing young--tiny pachyderms the size and general silhouette of Volkswagen Beetles. We saw thousands of bearded wildebeests, many hundreds of Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, and dozens of baleful, grim-faced grazing creatures known as kongoni. We saw a male ostrich with lewd pink legs and feathers like a dirndl skirt perform a mating dance. We saw Kori bustards scratching the ground for tasty snakes, and patient vultures searching for the updrafts that would shoot them skyward. We saw great galumphing blobs of hippos sliding down mud banks into their all-day wallows, and baby baboons hunkered on their mothers' backs like jockeys. We saw all this--and we hadn't even eaten breakfast. Ravenous, we took a time-out at 8:30 a.m.

As our experience suggests, Ngorongoro is very possibly the earth's best spot for viewing wild game. Indeed, if any complaint can be lodged against the crater, it is that too much can be seen too soon and too easily. Largely absent is the suspense of stalking some elusive quarry, the challenge of, say, thinking like a hyena so as to surmise where the hyenas should be. But East Africa is a distant place, and most North American visitors have a limited amount of time to spend and don't know if they'll ever pass that way again. For such visitors, Ngorongoro is the closest thing to a sure thing in the never-certain world of undomesticated nature.

What makes Ngorongoro such a good bet is that it is amazingly compact. Its 100 square miles include grasslands, swamps, streams, an alkaline (soda) lake, and hills--each a habitat with its own characteristic mix of species. Forget Biosphere II: If you want a universe in miniature, the crater is the place.

Thank geology for that. Ngorongoro lies in Africa's Great Rift Valley, an area of intense volcanic activity. As recently as 2 1/2 million years ago, the crater was a huge volcanic mountain, probably higher than Africa's current highest peak, the 19,000-foot Kilimanjaro. But when thermal activity subsided, Ngorongoro caved in like a failed souffl. The former cone is now a bowl whose bottom is some nine miles in diameter and roughly a mile above sea level; the surrounding rim, or caldera, rises to 7,800 feet and is the largest unbroken volcanic shell in the world.

Climate is the other factor that has made the crater such a teeming cauldron of life. Ringed by cloud-catching highland forest, Ngorongoro has fresh water all year round--a rare thing in East Africa, with its alternating seasons of torrential rains and dusty droughts. In other game-viewing havens such as the Serengeti plain and the Masai Mara, the great mass of animals are migratory. The tourist's chances of seeing those places at their best are dependent upon the whims of rain and water holes. Ngorongoro has seasonal variations, too, but it also has a resident population of predators and prey who have learned the advantages of staying put.

The drama of what unfolds between those predators and prey heightens in proportion to population density--and real estate is at a murderous premium on the small and circumscribed crater floor. Think of it as an island city, a sort of beasty Manhattan, and you begin to understand the pace and intensity of what goes on there. It isn't always pretty--as when a mass of carrion birds completes the cleaning of a carcass, or competing lion prides stage monumental cat fights over territory. But as elemental spectacle, it cannot be surpassed.

MASAI STORIES. Our tour was organized by Abercrombie & Kent International (800 323-7308), the leading outfitter for private, tented safaris. Our version was 15 days, took only seven people, and included stops in the Serengeti and Masai Mara. It cost a princely $7,000 per person, not including airfare to Nairobi. For the price, one enjoys a level of luxury all the more impressive when you consider the logistics of serving up gourmet meals, a full bar, and hot showers in camp. The food is plentiful and includes such indigenous delicacies as impala. The tents are room-size, and the ratio of staff to guests is downright colonial.

Our guide was a westernized Masai named William Meiliari. He had amazing eyesight, a dry sense of humor, and bore an uncanny resemblance to Muhammad Ali. Before getting his present job, Meiliari worked for the Tanzanian Conservation Dept. as a ranger, head of antipoaching efforts in the crater, and public information officer. Ngorongoro had been his neighborhood for 15 years, and he knew it in astonishing detail. He knew that a lioness with a notched right ear was the precinct's greatest hunter. He knew that a certain elephant had lost a tusk. And he knew from which shrubs came the enzyme-rich twigs used by the local people as toothbrushes and from what trees came the medicine that broke malarial fever.

He knew, as well, where the name Ngorongoro came from. "Around 300 years ago," he said, gesturing with a grand proprietary sweep, "this land was used by a tribe called the Datoga. But the Masai have certain beliefs. They believe, for instance, that God put cattle on earth only for them--so it is not stealing, but rather doing God's will, to take the cattle that other people somehow ended up with by mistake.

"This crater was a very good place for grazing, and since God insists that the Masai treat their cattle well, piety dictated that they should have it. So the Datoga had to move. Masai warriors are very fierce and brave, but they don't like to kill people unless it is necessary. So when they came to take the crater, they didn't sneak up; they wore bells, as a warning. The message was: `If you want to leave, go in safety. If you want to die, stick around.' The sound of the bells was ngorrrro, ngorrrro."

There is no denying that, in the fractious politics of African conservation, the "Masai question" remains a thorny one. Relatively small in numbers, the Masai have, by dint of will and strength, long controlled great parcels of land in both Tanzania and Kenya. As pastoralists, they believe that land is to be used--not owned--and they don't take kindly to being told that they can't bring their herds or build villages in places the government has mysteriously defined as off-limits. As of now, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (of which the crater comprises only 3%) is legislated as a "mixed land-use area." Cattle-raising is allowed, agriculture is not.

But Tanzania is a poor country and a rapidly changing one, and Meiliari, a political realist, stresses the fragility of Ngorongoro's status. "The outside world agrees," he says, "that the crater is a treasure, but the outside world does not elect local representatives to our Parliament. If the people decide that tourism is not the greatest benefit, if they see conservation as somehow holding them back...." The guide doesn't finish the sentence, and doesn't have to. It is hard to imagine that the irreversible ecological blunders committed nearly everywhere else will somehow be avoided in Africa--indeed, that continent has already seen its share. Because of its uniqueness and ferocious beauty, Ngorongoro should be seen. And because of its undeniable precariousness, it should be seen soon.

Precarious, yes. But in the gorgeous and silently eventful hour before sunset, it is easy to forget all that. The vagaries of African politics--indeed, of all things complicated and human--seem as foreign as the British Airways 747 that brought us here.

SHAPELY FLANKS. A sudden breeze kicks up a dust devil from the silvery volcanic ash. A cheetah climbs an anthill, freezes, and waits for a gazelle to come too close. Lions, the most fearless animals and the laziest, stretch reluctantly awake from their all-day sleep in plain view of any creature that would dare to bother them. Muscles twitch on their shapely flanks, and unabashed yawns reveal teeth as long as ice picks. Flamingos stand in the soda lake and feed on algae without ever lifting their heads. Crowned cranes come swooping down and run for balance when they hit the ground, like people stepping off a moving bus.

The sun slips behind the crater rim, and instantly it is cool. Tree hyraxes--climbing, squirrel-size creatures whose closest living relative is the elephant--launch into their hard, ratcheting call. The Land-Cruiser labors up the crater's side to camp. The fire has been started, and a campfire on an African safari is like a campfire nowhere else. It is warmth and safety, primal comfort and protection. It establishes a fleeting human stronghold, and keeps the animals away in the night.

But not so far away that we cannot hear the growl of lions, the seismic rumble of elephants, and the chattering of baboons. This is the music of Ngorongoro, the sound of the unending performance in nature's grandest amphitheater.