I can't believe it's almost over, and I don't just mean these last few days, I'm talking about the whole Africa trip. Has it really been almost 6 weeks since we left Cape Town? The time has flown by really quickly and I'm more than just a little sad to be leaving this amazing continent.
We had another early start this morning and made our descent into the crater just after dawn. The road down cuts down slowly so has traversed quite a few miles before it makes it to the bottom. Adam commented that it's a bit like a ski road and he thinks he could go really fast down there!
There was nothing to see on the way down, lots of bushes but it's too steep for many animals to hang around. The temperature got warmer all the way down which was nice as it had been pretty chilly up on the rim this morning. Not that it was exactly warm at the bottom, it was too early for that, but the air had a kind of warm freshness you often get in spring. It was promising to get hot later!
Once at the bottom we were confronted with what looked like a huge open plain. There seemed to be very little places to hide and yet we couldn't see any animals. I practically expected this place to be teeming with elephants and rhino, it's not as if they're small, why can't I see them?
It turns out the size of this place is deceptive. It reminds me of when we were in Las Vegas and someone told us the lake outside the Bellagio is 10 acres! We couldn't believe it because it just looked so small. Barely bigger than a pond. But the truth is that when everything around it is so large you begin to lose your normal sense of perspective.
That's what happened in the crater this morning. When the far rim looked quite close it was really many, many miles away and in between and the land wasn't quite as flat as it first appeared.
Initially we saw nothing, then we saw antelope, warthog's and zebra. These animals would practically appear as if from nowhere. It's surprising how they can camouflage against just plain grass in such a vast area. Even the elephants start of as tiny black dots long before you can make out what they are.
As it turns out hyena's seem to be pretty happy here, there certainly are a lot of them anyway. We say hyena's almost everywhere we turned. One even walked right past us down the track we were following but going in the other direction as if we weren't there. It kept Adam quiet for a while!
There were elephants wandering close to the track as well and our guide was wary of getting too close so he waited for them to move on and told us all to keep quiet. One of those elephants could easily turn over our truck with us inside if it got upset!
We must have driven for several hours without seeing anything of any great interest when we followed a little stream and came across a dead zebra. It had apparently died of natural causes but would soon become food for someone. We wanted to stay and see who came a long when we noticed a lot of other trucks parked up a little but further on so we headed over to take a look.
They had found more lions. These ones were actually quite active and were just sitting in the road right by the other vehicles. Eventually another lion came along and they all got up to great each other, weaving in and out of 4x4's as if they were no more than annoying trees or bushes that got in the way. We watched the 3 lions greet each other before settling down again but, despite being much more awake than any others we've seen so far, it's clear they weren't in hunting mood so we moved on again.
For a little while the only other interesting thing we saw (not including the incredible beauty of the place) was a jackal running around.
Our guide decided to head towards the large lake where there is a huge congregation of flamingos that apparently turns the whole lake pink at a distance. On the way there we found more zebra, antelope and hyena as well as a fair few wildebeest that hadn't joined the migration (they don't need to because there is always plentiful food down here).
Amongst all these animals where 2 big grey lumps that looks like rocks, only they had horns! They were black rhino! Not very close but near enough to just make out. Both were lying down in the early morning sun and there are very few tracks down here so it's not possible to get any closer but that's it! We've seen The BIG 5!
If you've not heard of The BIG 5 (it is written like that) then it's basically the 5 most prized animals in Africa that hunters want to shoot. They are picked either because of their difficulty to find or their difficulty to kill - whilst on foot. The BIG 5 includes lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and black rhino!
These days' tourists are more likely to use the term and it is a popular pastime amongst visitors to Africa to find The BIG 5, well now we have!
We reached the lake and I was completely amazed by the sheer volume of flamingos here. There must have been thousands! The whole of one side of the lake was just a carpet and from a distance the lake really did look pink!
Around about then our guide got a phone call and we found ourselves speeding across the crater to the other side. He said there was something very special there, something that is rare to find in the crater, but it's a long way from where we are and may be gone before we arrive!
It must have been half an hour later when we arrived but it was still there, a lone cheetah! This one was just sat in the short grass with no form of cover and was completely at ease surrounded by potential pray. A shame as she's clearly not hungry!
There were once again a number of other trucks around, it seems that everyone in the crater this morning is either here or on their way but who can blame them. The keepers say there are only 4 cheetah that live down here and they are rarely seen so to have one so close is a treat indeed!
We must have sat for about half an hour watching her but nothing happened. Eventually we drove to a nearby picnic spot for lunch where we had to be aware of the dive bombing hawks trying to steel our food. It's safer to eat in the truck. We then headed back to our cheetah.
Every now and again she would get up and move but unfortunately for us it was always directly away from us and in completely in the wrong direction. Even at her closest my full zoom had struggled to pick up much detail and I wished I had a tripod to stop camera shake.
So we waited and we waited, and sometimes she would get our hopes up by creeping closer to a nearby animal, but she never showed any intention of going into hunt mode so we gave up. It was still our closest cheetah encounter without obstruction (grass) by far though so we were very happy. Like the leopard they are beautiful and graceful animals and I could watch them all day.
Further along we were confronted by a buffalo and watched a standoff between a hyena and a jackal on the horizon. We also found 2 more black rhino! Still lazing around and still much too far away for my liking but that brings our total up to 4 now! In fact they were so far away you could barely see them with the naked eye. I'll always be amazed by our guide's eyesight. If we see a black lump in the distance there's no telling if it's a rock, a wildebeest, an elephant or a rhino! Or indeed anything in between, particularly if it's lying down. But somehow our guides always know!
Later one we found 3 more rhino, they were also standing up making them much clearer to make out than the others but they were no closer. Still, it would seem there are quite a few down here after all.
We laughed at some monkeys hitching a ride on another truck and then that was it, it was time to leave! I was quite sad really, this has been the most amazing experience and I barely feel like we've scratched the surface but we need to get back to Arusha by 5pm so we had to go.
The drive out of the crater is very steep and windy. We climbed at such a fast rate that my ears popped several times. The gravel track was slippery as well so on some steep corners it was a little concerning. Luckily our guide drives this road all the time and knows it well but he was often in first gear with the engine screaming to make it up!
Eventually we reached the top, an hour and a half after setting off and we had a brief but spectacular view before we began our descent to the exit and the main road to Arusha.
At about this time everyone fell asleep, myself included. We woke up just in time to arrive a camp feeling much refreshed and looking forward to being reunited with Mandla, Vincent, Marcus and Kay!
Tomorrow we arrive in Nairobi and it's the end of the tour for us!!!