Letter #4

February 13, 2011

The Ngorongoro Crater is like stepping back into Eden in many ways. Possibly the only completely intact volcanic crater in the world, certainly in Africa, Ngorongoro has a wonderfully protected environment for many species.

It is spectacular to come upon it after bone-jarring hours in the Land Rover 4x4. One disembarks and steps to the edge of a little pullout and there, spread out before us in pastels and mists, soft shafts of sunlight illuminating the shifts of terrain from desert to rain forest. A great flat-bottomed bowl that teems with as yet unseen wildlife.

The Crater is the only place one can see every one of the "big five": lion, jaguar, rhinoceros, elephant, and cheetah. (Of course, some of us would add in some other stars, like the giraffe, definitely big and possessor of the largest heart of any land animal, one of my own personal favorites.)

In one day we saw every single one of them, although the jaguar was pretty distant (They're night and forest animals, so are much less evident than any of the others.)

I won't go into the details of what happened with each sighting because between the jouncing, the excited ooohing and aahhhing and where is it?s and my oncoming bug/allergy/cough, etc, I haven't had the time or energy to do much writing. It's also one of those "you have to be there" things.

Of course we're all madly snapping fotos: It's ludicrous in a way. Of the almost a thousand pictures I've taken, very few can compete with what's available all over the internet every day. But they're precious anyway, because each picture anchors the memory of something I've learned about this rich world here, and even if it doeswn't provide a visual thrill, it brings back fascinating details. For example, there are so many zebra and wildebeest here migrating behind the rain that one can even get a little blasť about them. (Not very, because who is as extravagant as a zebra with its crazy pajamas, and wildebeest have the most amazing combination of horse, deer, buffalo, and more.

Someone once referred to them as a horse put together by a committee. But there's some much more interesting information about them. The wildebeest and zebra have a partnership going. Zebra have a poor sense of smell, but excellent eyesight and, equally important, a very good memory. Wildebeest have excellent sense of smell (they know when and where the rain is, for example, but crs (can't remember s---). So one of their number gets eaten by a crocodile, and wouldn't you know, the wildebeests cross the river in the exact same place again the next day-and somebody gets eaten. Over the millennia, however, nature somehow figured a way to give the wildebeest and zebras a leg up. So now they travel together with the wildebeest giving early warnings of danger and the zebra steering everyone clear of proven danger zones. Another example of the interspecies teamwork: The giraffe has a lot of surface and ticks galore and benefits from the ox-picker, a medium small bird that goes up and down its neck and back kind of like a woodpecker, and clears ticks. The giraffe is his dinner table.

Zebra, wildebeest, Cape buffalo and more zebra, rhinoceros, lion, serval, silver-crowned crane, jackal, hyena, lions, hippopotamus, more warthogs, and birds-huge and proud ostriches, spectacularly plumed guinea fowl, bustards, buzzards, eagles, kites, grey heron (which look like our blues), tall, black and white, crazy-legged secretary birds (which look like they're wearing black pedal pushers and pencils arrayed around their heads like a cross between a geisha and Saturday Night Live's Rosanna Rosanada), bat-eared foxes, flushed out of their daytime burrows by a chase and blinking sleepily in the sun, and much, much more.

What is remarkable is that many of these animals were raised with these green and grey vans hanging around them and doing no harm. They're more leery of the hawk or hyena skulking around than of us. Armed with binoculars, cameras, guidebooks, sunglasses and more, we certainly look formidable, but they've never seen a problem. So they go about their business, even to sleep, secure in their stardom, surrounded by fans coming and going and chattering to each other about catching a foto of a yawn, or the star rolling over. Surely no movie star was ever so minutely observed as these glorious creatures.

We look for action: Even people who say, "anything but a kill. I don't want to see a kill." Actually come round after a while. Something about the remarkable cycle of nature and the way in which everything is used-nothing goes to waste-draws us toward seeing nature in its entirety, even the tough stuff.

Speaking of tough, you haven't seen till you've seen a bunch of hippos going at it with each other. Although you might not assume it from the way they hang around a pool mostly submerged, slowly pooping and bobbing up and down, they're very competitive. When you see the gang in a hippo pool, you become aware that they wag their tails a lot. Far from being a friendly gesture, it's some kind of territorial marking (they do it every time they evacuate feces to spread their territorial marking more widely. In a pool, it's a constant message "don't mess with me, I kick yore ass!" Periodically one of them looms up out of the water (a startling transformation) and with mouth agape, goes after another. I'm not sure how far they'd take it. It may be that their "fighting" is just seeing who can dislocate their jaw faster.

I was very lucky, by the way. Following Ellen Forbes' good lead based on her expertise at Audubon, I purchased Nikon binocular (funny word-binocular). People talk about a pair of binoculars, but it's really just one, unless theyre talking about oculars . . .

Don't listen to this nonsense. I've been surviving on about 2 hours sleep a night. The grandfather of all cold/allergy/bronchitis cases I've ever had in my life has been trying to take me down. Ellen's got it now too, and a few others may be at the barricades. Not sick in 3 years, and the first time I am it's got to be in blinking Africa!

So the good news is that when I asked about a doctor, there happened to be one on the plane who treated a lot of UN folks and was used to the whole drill. I now have my meds and am on the mend. Tomorrow I fly to Zanzibar (isn't that a great sounding name?). The plan is that I'll make contact by email with my Zanzibar SERVAS host. But you know about plans. Here I am at the Dik Dik hotel, and their internet's down, too. This is an enforced faith walk.

By the way, in case you don't know what a Dik Dik Antelope is, let me fill you in on our first encounter with one. They are tiny, about the size of Bambi and with the same kind of eyes, and they were one of the first animals we saw. Mgonja stopped and pointed to the shoulder and adjacent rise not 12 feet away, and we could see nothing. Until there was the lick of an ear, the quick cast of an eye in another direction and suddenly there was the creature, tiny magical mini-deer.

My four nights of coughing with no sleep is catching up with me, so I think I'm going to wrap up and send this if I can.

I'll get back to you with more as soon as I can.

Love to all from Africa!

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