Tanzania 1989: Memorable nights in the Ngorongoro Crater



Tanzania 1989
We visited Serengeti during the famous annual migration of white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi). In this picture, myriads of wildebeest are running down a river bank, causing huge clouds of dust to rise. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



It is raining. I am sitting in our car, writing my diary, while my companions, Lars Nørgaard Hansen, Thomas Bregnballe, and Conny Asmussen, are on their way, on foot, up Mount Meru – at 4,565 metres the highest mountain in Arusha National Park, northern Tanzania. Undoubtedly, they are very wet, since they didn’t bring any rain gear. I stayed back at the car, as I am a little weak after a bout of diarrhoea.


Beautiful mountain forests
In Arusha, we have rented a car and a driver, Moses – an elderly, very knowledgeable man, who was once employed as a national park ranger. On our way towards the national park, the cloud cover lifts, and we have a fine view towards Mount Kilimanjaro – at 5,895 metres the highest mountain in Africa. Once we reach the national park, we observe many giraffes, grazing on the grass-covered mountain slopes. The pattern of these giraffes is quite unique, and some authorities consider them a hybrid between reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. reticulata) and Masai giraffe (G. c. ssp. tippelskirchi), often called Galana giraffe.

We are camping at a beautiful spot in the foothills of Mount Meru, beneath a few large trees, which are enveloped by strangler figs (Ficus). The area around our camp is an important feeding area for animals like giraffe, bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), and a tiny antelope, Cavendish’s dik-dik (Madoqua cavendishi). Birdlife is abundant here. Among others, we observe Hartlaub’s turaco (Tauraco hartlaubi), paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis), and, along streams, mountain wagtail (Motacilla clara) – a habitat quite similar to that of the Eurasian grey wagtail (M. cinerea). A young crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) is calling from a tree.

During our first night here, we are a little alarmed by an unbelievably powerful noise, coming from the trees above our tents, sounding like a mixture of some gigantic croaking frog, and a car engine which won’t start. As it turns out, the source of this sound is a troop of Kilimanjaro black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza ssp. caudatus), which live in the trees around our camp.

In the morning, a park ranger arrives at our camp, armed with a rifle. He is going to be our guide on a hike up the mountain. At first, we drive up a dirt road, often being forced to use four-wheel-drive, as the road is very muddy, due to heavy rain. The montane rainforest is very beautiful, with many large trees, their trunks covered in mosses, while their branches are festooned with old man’s beard lichens (Usnea). In the understory grow species like tree heath (Erica arborea), a shrubby species of St. John’s wort, Hypericum revolutum, Thunbergia gregorii, a species of balsam, probably Impatiens pseudoviola, and others. Above the forest, two mountain buzzards (Buteo oreophilus) are soaring.

Soon the road comes to an end, and my companions prepare to begin their walk, although dark, threatening clouds are looming on the horizon. Shortly after their departure, rain starts pouring, continuing almost incessantly throughout the day.



Tanzania 1989
The cloud cover lifted, and we had a fine view towards Mount Kilimanjaro, at 5,895 metres the highest mountain in Africa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1993 
The pattern of giraffes of Arusha National Park is quite unique, and some authorities consider them a hybrid between reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. reticulata) and Masai giraffe (G. c. ssp. tippelskirchi), often called Galana giraffe. In the background Mount Meru (4,565 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1990
We were a bit alarmed, the first time we heard the powerful noise, emitted by a troop of Kilimanjaro black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza ssp. caudatus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
A young crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus), calling from a tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
Many trees on Mount Meru are festooned with old man’s beard lichens (Usnea). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
A species of balsam, probably Impatiens pseudoviola, photographed after heavy rain, Mount Meru. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tent washed away
Tarangire National Park is renowned for its many great baobabs (Adansonia digitata), and its spectacular herds of elephants (Loxodonta africana). We pitch our tents at a primitive campsite near the river, afterwards going on a game drive to experience the rich wildlife of the park. On the savanna, large herds of impalas (Aepyceros melampus) and Grant’s gazelles (Nanger granti) are grazing, accompanied by a troop of about a hundred olive baboons (Papio anubis). A hollow baobab emits a strong musk scent, indicating that bats use its interior as a day roost. Several spikes are hammered into the trunk, all the way up – placed here by honey gatherers, says Moses. Two barn owls (Tyto alba) also utilize the tree as a day roost.

Early in the afternoon, a tremendous rain storm passes over. It rains so hard that the landscape is barely visible through the dense mist. Just before sunset, the rain ceases, the sky turning red and yellow in the west. Back at our camp, we are met by a pitiful sight: Lars’s tent and mine are flattened, and everything inside is drenched: sleeping bags, sheets, clothes. Thomas’s and Conny’s tent is simply missing, washed away, and they find it about 50 metres from the camp. Luckily, before leaving, they had the foresight to empty their tent, and they are kind enough to lend me a spare sleeping bag. Lars spends an uncomfortable night on the front seat of the car, which is alive with bed bugs. He hardly gets any sleep at all. The following day, luckily, is a bright, sunny day, and we spend some hours drying our equipment.



Tanzania 1989
A tremendous rain storm, passing over Tarangire National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1988 
Tarangire is renowned for its many great baobabs (Adansonia digitata). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
Barn owl (Tyto alba) on its day roost in a baobab. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
Olive baboons (Papio anubis) are very common in Tarangire. This troop is resting in a palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopum). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
Thomas, observing from the top of our Landrover, Tarangire. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
Lars, photographing a leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Tarangire. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater
We now head for the famous Ngorongoro Crater, more than 600 metres deep and c. 15 kilometres across – the remains of a giant, long extinct volcano that collapsed, creating a caldera, which is today one of Africa’s best wildlife areas, with numerous white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi) and plains zebras (Equus quagga ssp. boehmi), besides lions (Panthera leo), spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), African buffalos (Syncerus caffer), black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius), and many other mammals.

Two zebra stallions start fighting, neighing loudly and galloping side by side, biting each other’s legs and doing their best to bite at the opponent’s testicles. A bull black rhino sniffs a tuft of grass, into which a female has urinated, baring his lips in a posture, called flehmen. The inhaled air passes special sensing organs, which are able to detect whether the female is in heat. This behaviour is seen in many mammals, among others horses and cats.

Birdlife is also abundant in the crater. In a salt-lake, thousands of lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) are feeding, besides many species of waders. In the grass, large kori bustards (Otis kori) and Masai ostriches (Struthio camelus ssp. massaicus) strut about. During a slight rain shower, a male black-bellied bustard (Lissotis melanogaster) is displaying, bending his long neck and filling it with air, while emitting a humming sound. He then stretches his neck as far into the sky as possible, ending the whole séance with a loud ‘pop’.



Tanzania 1989
Two plains zebras (Equus quagga ssp. boehmi), galloping side by side, biting each other’s legs and trying to bite the opponent’s testicles. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
This bull black rhino (Diceros bicornis) is sniffing a tuft of grass, where a female has urinated, baring his lips in a posture, called flehmen. Hereby, a certain sensitive area in his mouth can detect whether the female is in heat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
During a slight rain shower, this male black-bellied bustard (Lissotis melanogaster) performs his courtship display. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
Most of the elephants (Loxodonta africana) in the Ngorongoro Crater are bulls, often forming small herds of bachelors. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Memorable nights
Back at our camp, we are met by yet another pitiful sight: all three tents have been flattened. One of the poles of Lars’s tent is broken, and there is a long tear in the canvas. The carbon bow in Thomas’s and Conny’s tent is broken. The canvas of my tent is completely destroyed, and the inside of the tent is a foul mess, as my sleeping bag is smeared in monkey shit.

From other tourists, camping nearby, we learn that during our absence they saw a troop of green vervets (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), jumping up and down on our tents. These monkeys are incredibly naughty. As soon as you turn your back on them, they steal fruit or other food items. But we can hardly believe that these small monkeys would be able to create such havoc. Maybe the tents have been destroyed by baboons or buffaloes. Lars, Thomas and Conny now spend quite some time repairing their tents, while I clean my sleeping bag. My tent is beyond repair, so I hand Lars one of my tent poles, which, luckily, can replace his broken one. As I am now without a home, Lars generously suggests that I sleep in his tent, which has plenty of space for two people.

The following evening, we are just about to take our seats on the rim of a concrete fireplace to enjoy our meal, when Moses suddenly says: ”Careful, there are lions around!” We switch on our torches, and there, less than 10 metres away, are three lionesses. We quickly retreat to a respectful distance. The lions, however, are not interested in us, but in a puddle of water, which has gathered beneath a leaking tap. When they have quenched their thirst, they disappear into the darkness.

In the night, I am awoken by Lars, who is shaking my shoulder. ”There are elephants just outside our tent, breaking branches off trees!” he whispers. ”What are we going to do?” – Loud creaking and crashing sounds can be heard, besides a crunch-crunch, when their strong teeth crush branches and twigs. The huge animals are so close that we can also hear their stomachs rumbling. All we can do is to stay as quiet as mice.

Thomas, in the other tent, is curious to see, what’s going on, so he starts unzipping the tent. Moses, who is spending the night in our car, shouts: ”Thomas, stay in your tent!” But the elephants have heard the noise from the zipper and are now on their way towards the other tent to investigate. Moses yells, flashing the headlights of the car and starting the engine. The elephants get confused and retreat a short distance. However, they remain in the area for a couple of nerve-shattering hours, but finally we manage to fall asleep again, awaking at dawn, unharmed.


Wildlife around our camp
There is a problem with the clutch of our car, and Moses has to bring it to the park headquarters, on the crater rim, to get hold of a mechanic. He’s away for three days, and meanwhile we spend our time studying the wildlife around our camp. Zebras, wildebeest, Grant’s gazelles, kongonis (Alcelaphus cokei), and Defassa waterbuck (Kobus defassa) are grazing nearby, and in the trees around our camp site, tree hyraxes (Dendrohyrax arboreus) emit piercing screams. They look somewhat like fat rabbits with sharp fangs, but, in fact, their nearest living relatives are elephants!

In order to dry my laundry, I want to tie a clothes-line to a tree branch, but, as it turns out, the tree is occupied by a huge male baboon, who bares his formidable canines, assuming a threatening position. ”On your guard, you weakling!” he seems to say. I hastily retreat, finding another tree for my clothes-line!

Several bird species are bathing in a small puddle, among others superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus) and rufous-tailed weaver (Histurgops ruficauda). In a fig tree, bearing ripe fruits, various birds are feeding, e.g. African green pigeon (Treron calvus), red-eyed dove (Streptopelia semitorquata), violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster), and superb starling.



Tanzania 1989
Tanzania 1989
While Moses was away to have our car repaired, we spent our time studying the wildlife around our camp. Here, Lars is photographing a tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax arboreus). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
Various birds were feeding in a fig tree, full of ripe fruits, e.g. African green pigeon (Treron calvus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus), bathing in a puddle. The bird in the background is a rufous-tailed weaver (Histurgops ruficauda). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wildebeest migration
From Ngorongoro, we head north towards the Serengeti Plains. In a small growth of acacia trees, a pride of seventeen lions are resting. One lioness has a huge, open wound on her snout – the result of a confrontation with a spotted hyena, says Moses, who earlier talked to a person, witnessing the incident.

In the bushes above the lions, many wattled starlings (Creatophora cinerea) have built their nests – large heaps of sticks, with an entrance hole on the side. Most of the nests contain young of different age groups, and several tawny eagles (Aquila rapax) are sitting on top of the nests, scanning the surroundings for inexperienced young, which have just left the nest.

At Ndutu, we pay a visit to a luxurious lodge, hoping to supplement our rather monotonous diet with a delicious meal. Learning that a meal will cost 1900 Tanzanian Shillings, we make an orderly retreat, instead heading for the camp ground, where we cook our own meal – monotonous or not!

The following morning, the savanna west of Ndutu is indeed a wonderful sight: sunshine behind us, and pitch-black rain clouds in the western sky. It is time for Serengeti’s famous annual wildebeest migration. The savanna is completely covered in dense masses of wildebeest, as far as you can see, many of the dark-grey wildebeest cows followed by a pale-brown calf. For an hour or more, we are parked near a small stream, where myriads of wildebeest are running down the bank, causing huge clouds of dust to rise – yet another great sight!



Tanzania 1989
This lioness (Panthera leo) has a huge, open wound on her snout – the result of a confrontation with a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989 
The savanna around Ndutu was completely covered in dense masses of white-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes mearnsi), many of the dark-grey cows followed by a pale-brown calf. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Punished hyenas
Our highest wish on this trip is to watch a pack of African hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus) on the hunt. We succeed in finding a pack near Gol Kopjes. Kopjes are isolated rocky outcrops, which, somewhat wantonly, pierce the savanna here and there. Incidentally, they are the remains of ancient, eroded mountains. To the Boer, when they migrated to Southern Africa in the 1700s, these outcrops resembled heads, so they named them kopjes (‘head’ in Dutch).

When a spotted hyena enters the territory of the hunting dogs, two of the dogs immediately give chase. The hyena utters its peculiar laughing call, leaving the area at full speed. But it’s far too slow, compared to the swift dogs. After a few seconds, they catch up with the hyena, biting its hind legs a couple of times. The hyena screams, whirling around to snap at the dogs with its powerful jaws. The incredibly fast dogs swarm around the hyena, biting its behind and jumping backwards, before it is able to bite them.

The poor hyena zooms across the savanna, bleeding from its legs and behind, still chased by the furious dogs. Finally, it backs into a hole, where only its head and front paws are exposed. Here the dogs are unable to bite the hyena, as its powerful jaws keep them at bay. After a few minutes, the dogs return to their territory. Two other hyenas receive the same punishment, quickly retreating.

Hyenas are much attracted to hunting dogs, their favorite food being the dogs’ faeces, which they are willing to do almost anything to get at. There have been instances of hyenas, creeping up to a sleeping hunting dog to lick its anus – afterwards being bitten in their own behind. Hyenas often try to steal the prey of hunting dogs, and if their pack is large enough, they often succeed in chasing the dogs away from their prey.



Tanzania 1989
After a brief chase, the hunting dogs caught up with the hyena, biting its hind legs a couple of times. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Hunting dogs hunting
After chasing away the hyenas, the five dogs are restless. Four of them set out to follow a herd of Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas nasalis), carefully estimating which animal shows signs of weakness. The dogs are incredibly fast. In a moment, they have caught up with the gazelles, picking out a possible prey. Two of them chase a buck, the other two running some distance behind them, ready to prevent the buck from turning back. When gazelles start getting tired, they often begin to run in semi-circles, in which case the dogs at the rear quickly take over the chase.

This hunt ends abruptly after only two minutes, when one of the dogs collides with the buck. The collision is so powerful that the buck makes a somersault, and a few seconds later the dogs have a firm grip at it. Their sharp teeth tear up the belly of the gazelle, and they start eating its intestines, while it is still alive. This is a rather nasty sight, and for this reason, in the past, many hunting dogs were shot on sight by people, who hated this behaviour.

In fact, this way of killing is fast and efficient. Large and deep wounds cause an instant shock effect, and the sufferings of the prey are probably rather limited, before it dies, which mostly happens within a few minutes. Larger prey like zebras and wildebeest live a little longer – up to 17 minutes has been recorded, but such cases are very rare.

People seem to have a much more sympathetic attitude towards the way large cats kill their prey, namely by biting it around the neck until it is strangled. This is not a very bloody affair, which is probably why people regard it as more ’humane’. In reality, the prey is suffering for a much longer time from being strangled than from being torn apart alive.



Tanzania 1989
Thomson’s gazelle (Eudorcas nasalis) is a favourite prey species of hunting dogs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Pups galore
“Hang on!” shouts Moses, proceeding to drive across the bumpy savanna at 70 km/hour. We reach the dogs, just as they have started gorging themselves on the intestines. They ignore us completely. The gazelle is long dead, and in ten minutes it has been devoured, only head, skin and bones left behind. As a gazelle buck weighs around 60 kilograms, each of the four dogs have eaten ten to twelve kilograms of meat!

After finishing their meal, the dogs trot across the savanna towards their territory, and we decide to follow a bitch with swollen teats. She doesn’t mind the car at all, but approaches a den, emitting a strange, bird-like twitter. Nine pups immediately emerge from the den. They are about four weeks old, with black, wrinkled faces and enormous ears, tottering about on their short legs.

The pups surround the bitch, licking the corners of her mouth. She retreats a bit, making a few convulsive throat movements, regurgitating a large portion of meat. The pups immediately fall upon it, swallowing the smaller bits and fighting over the larger ones. Sometimes it evolves into a tug-of-war, in which two pups haul at either end.

When the other three dogs return to the den, they also regurgitate meat, not only for the pups, but also for the mother and for the fifth dog, which remained back at the den to guard the pups. All dogs in a pack participate in rearing a litter. When the pups are young, the mother – and often another dog – will remain at the den, while the other members of the pack go hunting. Even if the mother dies, the other members of the pack will rear the pups. There has even been an example of a pack of male dogs rearing a litter, when the mother – which was the only female in the pack – had died. (Read more about hunting dogs on this website, see Animals: Hunting dogs – nomads of the savanna.)



Tanzania 1989
In ten minutes, the gazelle had been devoured, only head, skin and bones left behind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
The bitch made a few convulsive throat movements, proceeding to regurgitate a large portion of meat for the pups. Note that the other dog is wearing a radio-collar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Tanzania 1989
Hunting dogs have no fear of vehicles. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Hugo & Jane van Lawick-Goodall (1970). Innocent killers. Collins
Hugo van Lawick (1973). Solo. The story of an African wild dog puppy and her pack. Collins



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(Revised April 2018)