Our last stop on this amazing adventure was Ngorongoro Crater, with two nights at the Nogorongo Sopa, and two morning game drives into the crater. The Sopa, as repeatedly mentioned, has truly the best location for fast access to the crater. Both mornings we were the first car in--leaving the lodge a little before six, we were first at the gate (where we had to wait on the first morning as the gatekeeper wasn't even there yet!) Within 15-20 minutes we were on the floor of the crater. And yes, it does make a difference. I attribute our astounding first morning sighting to being first on the scene.
From the very start of the trip we had told Emmanuel that one of our "most wanted" was serval. We always had our eyes open for one, but alas, no luck in Ndutu or Serengeti. But he told us the crater was our best bet. No guarantees, of course.... That first morning as we entered the crater (stopping only briefly to try to ID a couple of nightjars on the road) he was making a beeline...we knew not where. Well, it wasn't 5 minutes before we stopped dead and he said...look up the road. A gorgeous serval was sitting at attention in the road dead ahead of us! We couldn't believe it! It was uncanny, as if it had been planted there! And of course we were the only ones around. The light was almost too low for photography, but we snapped what we could. No worries, as the serval wasn't going anywhere. We soon realized the attraction of this particular spot; there were many Helmeted Guineafowl. We sat and watched him hunt as the sun came up higher, finally allowing for some photo ops. He lay in wait for the Guineafowl, but for some reason never made an attempt to catch one. In a bit we were joined by another Roy Safari vehicle (how did he know??) but no others came along. I can tell by my photo timestamps that we were with the serval for almost 50 minutes; eventually he moved across the road and ran off into some high grass. What an incredible way to start the day!
But that wasn't our only fantastic sighting of the day. We of course hoped to see Black Rhino in the crater, but didn't have much expectation of any close views. Boy, were we wrong! Shortly after the serval sighting, Emmanuel spotted two rhino not too far off the road in the distance. A short drive and we arrived just in time to have them cross the road directly in front of us! Amazing!
Of course, we saw many lion, mostly not doing anything (sigh) but many right on the road. So many animals everywhere, wherever you looked, there was barely an empty space without wildlife. Many birds, of course, including displaying Kori Bustards and Crowned Cranes. We had our picnic breakfast at a lovely spot where the birds perched on our vehicle looking for handouts, and a heron fishing from the back of a hippo--and another lifer, Fan-tailed Widowbird.
The crater is immeasurably beautiful and it was one place I felt emotionally overwhelmed. It is beyond me how anyone can compare it to a zoo. Nor can I understand how folks can say that it can be done in six hours. The only way we could tear ourselves away was with the knowledge that we were returning the next morning. As an aside, we stayed until at least 1:30 so a bit over our six-hour limit. No one stopped us at the gate and our time was never checked. The crater was one place, however, that we saw many rangers patrolling, and the only place on the trip where the guides (including ours) actually seemed wary of the rangers. At one lion sighting the ranger was moving cars along after a few moments as too many were gathering on the road. Never saw this elsewhere.
Later in the day, after a late (and excellent) lunch at the Sopa, we were scheduled to go for the "Crater Rim Walk" with a ranger. We had looked forward to this, but it was rather a disappointment, as it started out going through the area where the guides lodged; then proceeding up a rather weedy and un-birdy dirt track mostly lined with stinging nettles (and yes, they sting...don't ask how I know!) We were then supposed to head up into the forest, but it was not to be...as we approached the edge, some workers told our guide (who spoke almost no English) that elephants were in the forest. So alas, we had to turn back (we did see the somewhat huge elephants on the hillside, so could totally understand that one would not want to be up there!) Oh well, we got a leg-stretch and it was only $20 for the full group. And we did get one new bird--decent looks at the Golden-winged Sunbird.
Next day, back again at 6 to the crater. The plan was to hit sunrise by the flamingo lake. You can't really get too close to the water, but on the first morning we had noted that the dawn light on the flamingos was beautiful. Unfortunately, this morning had a few clouds, and the light wasn't as good! So photos were disappointing. But the experience certainly wasn't. We spent quite a while watching some jackals running out into the water, apparently hunting flamingo chicks. Wildebeest and zebra came in to drink...it was quiet, with no other vehicles nearby. After this we headed into a wooded area of the crater that we hadn't ventured into the day before. We hoped for some good birds in there and weren't disappointed. African Paradise Flycatcher, many sunbirds... Emmanuel told us that once, years ago, he had caracal in this area...but unfortunately it didn't appear for us. Of course we were checking every tree for leopard (Emmanuel laughed...I guess its unlikely here, but we could hope on our last day!) Just as we were about to leave the area, we spotted "just another Roller" high on a branch. But wait...this one looked different--was that a yellow bill?? I yelled at Emmanuel to stop and couldn't believe our luck as it was a Broad-billed Roller, a life bird and one we had really, really wanted to get. Icing on the cake!!
Sadly it was soon time to leave the crater and head out to Gibbs Farm, where we were due for lunch. I could easily have spent the rest of the day in the crater. There is always something new to see, and no matter where you turn there is wildlife. Just a fantastic place.
A word about Gibbs Farm...its very pretty and lovely, but stopping there for lunch isn't really anything special. The grounds where you could actually bird weren't that extensive. Some folks on this forum had advised us to skip it and stay longer in the crater. In retrospect, this was good advice which we didn't take. Although we did appreciate the break in the long drive back to Arusha, and we did actually get a new bird there (Black and White Mannakin) but I wouldn't stop there again. The most incredible thing about it were the guest bathrooms upstairs behind the main building...can't be described...but amazing!
Finally, with a brief stop at the African Tulip for showers and repacking, we said good-bye to Emmanuel and the end of an amazing and memorable trip. We'll be back!