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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tanzania – Ngorongoro Crater

December 17, 2010 - Day 5 of safari in Tanzania – Ngorongoro Crater

Yesterday, we left the Serengeti to set up camp at our next national park: the Ngorongoro Crater. The Crater is the world’s largest caldera (formed by the collapse of a volcano) at 600 meters deep and 265 square kilometers. Last night, we arrived at Simba Campsite to set up our tents for the night. Mary and I share a two-person tent during this seven-day safari as we move from place to place in our safari vehicle with our guide, cook, and another traveler. I was admittedly nervous about this particular campsite because Edgar, our guide, said that elephants and bushbuck are known to visit Simba camp and attack the tents. Dave, the other American traveler in our group, assured me that “attack” was too strong a word, but I was apprehensive nevertheless. The camp was beautiful, though, like most everything in Tanzania. The campsite is situated on the rim, so our tents overlooked the landscape of the Ngorongoro Crater itself. As a bonus, I was able to charge my camera in the dining area at dinner – an opportunity I did not think I would have in the African wilderness.

The night at Simba Camp passed without much disturbance, though I did not think so at the time. Earlier in the safari, I realized that this trip was my first time camping since my McDermott class went to Santa Fe in August 2007. As a senior going on my last semester at UTD, I thought this was an interesting way to bookend my experience as a scholar. On this particular night, though, I was less reflective and more focused on the situation at hand: lying in a flimsy tent at a campsite known to be visited by the world’s largest living land mammal (the African elephant). Additionally, Ngorongoro Crater is known for its high concentration of lions (hence the name Simba Camp, simba meaning “lion” in Swahili). So several times that night I was convinced a lion was right outside the door, mistaking the other tourists’ snoring for snarls and growls.

We woke early this morning (though woke is a loose term for me since I did not sleep much to begin with), and today has been my favorite day of the trip thus far. Our group set out to make our way to the bottom of the crater before the 6:30am sunrise. The sun began rising up over the edge of the rim just as we had found a spot in the crater to keep the car idling. We could see the sun beginning to shine on the west side of the crater, though we could not see the sun itself. When it did rise, I was half expecting an Elton John inspired soundtrack to queue up. All animal anthropomorphism aside, Disney got it right in its portrayal of African wilderness in The Lion King.

The diversity of wildlife and scenery in the crater is perhaps what made this park my favorite, even over more famous locations like the Serengeti. We drove through forest area, plains, and saw multiple lakes. The animals we saw that day were many and varied. Among them were:

-Lion cubs. Although we had seen many lions and lionesses up until this point, these were our first lion cubs. One of the cubs even played with his father, a site we were told is very rare.

-Lionesses sniffing for pray. If there is anything that can make a person feel inferior, it’s observing the power and strength of a lioness. During one humbling situation, I made eye contact with a lioness who felt threatened by our presence. Despite any ability to reason on my part, I could tell which one of us nature would have deemed superior had it not been for the barrier the safari vehicle provided.

-Lions lounging about. Although the female lions demonstrated the species’ physical strength, most of the lions we saw were lazily sleeping, trying to stay out of the heat. In media, predatory animals are often depicted as killing machines when in fact most of the time these animals are pretty docile.

-Many zebra and wildebeest interacting. So comical! Edgar told us zebra and wildebeest are “friends,” which is why they are found together frequently in migration. Zebra detect water while wildebeest create tracks in the ground.

-Cheetahs standing on rocks ready to hunt. We actually saw one cheetah start after an antelope but gave up in the end.

-Giraffes, though only on the rim of the crater.

-Hippos, which are animals that make the most bizarre snorting noises.

-Black rhinos. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the best places to see these rare animals, even though there are only twenty-two in the entire crater. These rhinos are victims of serious poaching since their horn is very valuable on the black market. Edgar told me that poaching a black rhino can lead to a prison sentence of twenty-five years. We were able to see four rhinos from a distance through binoculars, which is actually a very fortunate sighting. It is rare for people to see black rhinos in the wild at all since they are very threatened by humans.

These experiences are a half a day’s worth of adventures on a trip that has already given me enough material to write a book. I could go on for pages about what I am learning about wildlife management, Tanzanian culture, or myself while in Africa. I look forward to having these new perspectives as I continue studying and working in the field of managing human-animal relationships.