There's an elephant 20 metres away and the car won't start…
We're on a dusty track in the midst of an acacia thicket and we spot an elephant chomping into his favourite thorny feed. The car pulls to a stop and I can't get a clear shot through the windscreen, so I just have to get out to film.
The Ngorongoro caldera in the north of Tanzania is a wildlife hotspot and a key tourist attraction, so the critters here are used to seeing cars coming and going all the time… and plenty of them. Even so, it's not usual for anyone to get out of their car in the crater (unless you have a special exemption - in this case my filming permit …and a guide - I was fortunate to have the very experienced Dumaini, a local Masai, at my side).
What a thrill to be filming at such close quarters, seeing this old boy's broken tusks glinting in the dappled light as he tore at the undergrowth with his trunk. After a few minutes filming Numaini says it's time to move - I jump back in the Toyota and CLICK. Not even a grunt from the engine - just CLICK.
John, our extraordinary driver looks momentarily stunned "how can the battery just die?" … I ask if the car is out of gear, foot on clutch… thinking I really don't want to get out and push. Hmmm. There's really nothing I can do - except perhaps seize the opportunity. "If we're going to be stuck here I'm going to get some more pictures", and jump out and start filming again. The old fellow in the bush is now looking at us with interest… perhaps another car will chance upon us and we can … BRRRRM. John's cranked it over! Jump back in the jalopy and off we go.
The crater - technically a caldera - is the sixth largest in the world and due to its steep sides, has a resident population that's unable to join the annual migration across the Serengeti. As an Australian country girl I'm used to stopping to allow cows to cross the road on their way to the dairy… here's its wildebeests. Zebras are thick on the ground, Thompson's gazelles flick their ears and flash their white blazed flanks as they spring away from the roadside. We get closer than most to a waterhole groaning with hippos wallowing in the mud. A mother with her young calf sun themselves and afford the most amazing photo opportunity.
(Hippos kill more tourists than any other African animal)
We get word from the rangers that a pride of lions is making its way across the plains in hunting formation and it's a quick goodbye to the hippos as we dash across the plains. Their location is easy to spot - four-wheel drives are lined up three deep and stretching some 20 vehicles alone as guides jostle to get their passengers the best possible view. The pride has its eye on three buffalo that have strayed from the main herd and make their move; the lead lioness swinging out wide to circle the trio and direct them back towards her chums, another five lionesses and two young males not quite ready to leave the family unit.
One of the girls hangs far back, ready for a sweeping tactical interception once the buffalo are separated. But this time it's not to be - whether the buffalo were alerted by the presence of so many cars, or whether it was something else, they suddenly snap to attention and gallop back to the herd. The hungry pride pause and a couple look like they're settling in for a nap, when the leader gets them on their way again. They unhurriedly lope to the road and weave their way between the vehicles, headed for a waterhole on the other side. Cars from the rear come hurtling forward, there's gears crunching, a scrape of undercarriage on rocks as vehicles mount the road verges for a better view. No need for binoculars, just camera motor drives snapping like crazy as travellers capture the moment.
(A lioness sports a head wound sustained during a previous hunt)
Of course, I'm craning to capture all the action too. I'm stretched out the car window but can't get a clean view past the wing mirror, and have to open the door and stand on the doorsill - too low, onto the seat, one leg on the bonnet - but I'm not stable enough. Finally I shimmy up the windscreen and onto the roof. (Technically I never left the vehicle, did I?)
No time to stop now - the rangers know we'd like to capture a rhino on film, and guide us in to where one is camped in the middle of a grassy expanse. From a distance he looks like a rock or a termite mound just cresting the golden stalks, but as we get closer he takes shape and I can see the oxpeckers doing their birdly duty and removing ticks from his ears. We hang back about 50 metres while the rangers skirt in closer - suddenly the rhino is up and charging full pelt after them. I reckon the rhino was within 10 metres of their 4WD before they began to put some distance between them. An astonishing burst of speed from an animal that can hardly see but has an acute sense of hearing.
The rhino stops and turns back, looking for the source of the irritation and swings his head towards us. You could have heard a pin drop - we in the car hardly dared breathe. He seemed to relax a little, but then his head swivelled back at the sound of one of our party taking a photo. We're still again for a moment, then my zoom lens showed me what the others couldn't see - he pawed the ground. "GO"! and even as I said it I thought "what if the car doesn't start again?" I didn't fancy a tonne or so of rhino testing the tensile strength of my door. The car jumping to life at the first touch of the ignition was one of the sweetest sounds in recent memory!
The rhinos are so rare and hence so valuable, that each one is under surveillance day and night. The rangers not only know exactly where every rhino is, but whether any cars get too close. Tourists, however, aren't the prime concern, but poachers. Rangers carry the sort of armaments more usually seen in the field of war in their battle to save these critically endangered animals. Poaches take their horns which can be sold overseas, usually to China, in the mistaken belief they're an aphrodisiac - when really, they're little more than compressed hair.
Tomorrow I'm visiting the cradle of civilisation, Oldupai gorge, and meeting the local Masai. Another big day beckons - stay tuned folks!
Here's a photo of Ngorongoro caldera from the crater rim at dawn:
(Karen Ashford travelled toTanzania at the invitation of the Tanzanian government)