The crater is quiet incredible. After a very steep climb on a well-made dirt track we crested the caldera’s edge and not long afterwards stopped at the first available viewing point for one of the most spectacular sights we’ve been privileged to see on this trip. Stretching away from our right, far into the distance, and then swinging back towards us on the left was the entire rim of the crater of this enormous extinct volcano. The crater floor itself is also in view, and looks like someone’s been mixing water and oil together – here is a patch of blue where Lake Magadi lies, there is a large greenish blue area which we later find is a huge watering hole and river system, and in the background are swatches of browns, yellows and reds which fade into purple the further back you look.
Descending down an incredibly steep one-way track, you suddenly realise that all those colours didn’t even hint at the little brown specks which start to show themselves as you climb down into the crater itself and begin to pick out the wildebeest that dot the plains. I have to admit that although I did expect to do some game viewing, I hadn’t really contemplated how they would relate to the surroundings; so I found myself feeling rather surprised at just how many animals we came across, but also how scattered they seemed – one Thomson gazelle here, a rhino there, a large lonely elephant and a solitary hyena were among our initial sightings. It occurred to me then that what I was finding different about this experience was that, for the most part, you can see for quite some distance in the crater (and can therefore tell that this little bushbuck is on his own), because much of it is short-cropped grassland, whereas I am used to having to squint through thick undergrowth to catch sight of anything that might be moving, and I’m guessing one is inclined to imagine that there might be a lot more out there than perhaps there ever was.
In any event, our wildlife sightings were pretty spectacular. In the space of about six hours we saw four of the Big Five: Buffalo, lion, rhino and elephant. Leopard is the only one we didn’t manage, but I don’t think we can complain, particularly as we did manage to see a cheetah! I was blown away. At primary school, our sporting houses were named after the big cats, and I was in Cheetah House, so in a funny kind of way I’ve always wanted to see a cheetah. And there it was – perched atop a little rocky outcrop, and almost impossible to spot. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for our eagle-eyed driver, Exaud, and the fact that two other cars were already stopped there, I don’t think we would have seen it. We spent the better part of half an hour just sitting watching it, only moving off when it went off to lie down in the shade, denying us much more of a view.
Lunch was a hodge-podge of food we’d bought on the way and some of Exaud’s packed lunch which he very kindly shared with us. We ate it at a waterhole where there was green grass for us to sit on, along with about a hundred other tourists whose drivers obviously also had the same idea. I think it’s a regular haunt for anyone stopping to eat there, and as a result we were swooped upon by an assortment of enterprising birds who knew a free lunch when they saw it. These included little LBJs (unidentifiable little brown jobs), guinea fowl and some very bold brown kites who would sweep down out of the sky to snatch sandwiches out of your hand!
We left the crater at about 5:30, climbing the very steep one-way ascent path, leaving behind the dry savannah landscape and entering the dark, dank forest that hugs the crater’s southern edge. We wondered if we might spot a leopard here, but decided that there were so many suitable hiding places that it would be very unlikely, which it was. Leopard are still on our must-see list for the next time we come here to visit the Serengeti.
We spent the night not far from the crater, on a working coffee farm where the farmhouse had been built by German expats in the early 1900s. We found a photo album with pictures of the original family who lived there, and a history of the place which was quite fascinating. Being German, they experienced problems during both world wars, and during WWII were sent to prison camps in Zimbabwe from where they were repatriated back to Germany. The farm itself was expropriated, and from what we could make out the old farmhouse is now run as a bed and breakfast by the local church as a source of income.