We left Lake Manyara and headed towards Ndutu in the Ngorongoro Conservation area, where we would spend three nights at Ndutu Safari Lodge. We passed through Karatu, up to the crater rim; with a brief stop at an overlook for our first view of Ngorongoro crater--amazing but rather marred by construction going on at the viewpoint, which did not allow for an unobstructed view. Oh well, we'd get plenty of the crater a week from now. We headed towards the small village of Endulan, as the plan was to take the less-traveled road to the gate. Actually, calling this a "road" is a bit of a misnomer. It starts off as a road but shortly after Endulan it becomes more of a track, through the fields, often muddy, always rutted, and in some spots seemingly impossible to follow, but for the skilled and experienced eye of Emmanuel. I certainly would not want to venture on this route without a very experienced driver! We did not see another vehicle for the entire time after we left Endulan, and it would have been easy to get stuck in the mud. But the at times harrowing drive was well worth it. The route took us past many small Maasai villages; we were stopped several times by cattle herds crossing. Many new birds graced the grassy fields, including Red-collared and Jackson's Widowbird, which we would not see elsewhere. And, it was here that we got our first glimpses of the migrating herds of zebra and wildebeest; although a bit in the distance, we were already overwhelmed by the vast numbers. At one point, we crossed a rather bizarre "fence" made up of sticks adorned with strips of colorful Maasai cloth...the fence stretched across the fields as far as the eye could see. E. told us this was put up by the Maasai to keep the migrating herds from crossing into their pastures.
We arrived at Ndutu Safari Lodge in time for lunch. (As an aside--we had read some negative things about the food at this lodge but we found it excellent--all served family style, but with no choice, so if you're picky you might not be pleased; but we enjoyed some very good home-style cooking, including pastas, plenty of vegetables, and curries. There was always way too much food at our table for three people!) The grounds are wonderful; small, isolated, and with a great birdbath visited by many birds even in the heat of the mid-day. Endemic Fisher's Lovebirds call this home; as do the well-photographed genets in the dining room. Several species of weavers nest right in the parking area, and many varieties of sunbirds abound. As birders, we were already happy. But really, Ndutu isn't about the birds...its about the cats, and the migration.
Since we saw so much at Ndutu I can't possibly detail every sighting. But the highlights:
--Countless lions. I have to say, that typical of lions, we never did see them doing much--mostly sleeping. Sometimes getting up, moving to another spot, and going back to sleep. The occasional yawn (excitement!) and a tussle or two (action!), which never lasted long. But that's a lion for you. We did once see a lion half-heartedly gaze longingly at a passing group of wildebeest...only to let them pass and then give up without making an attempt. It was our daily routine, at the end of the day, to find the lion pride to say goodnight as the sun went down (and made nice golden light on their fur.)
----At least 15 different individual cheetahs. A brother pair; a mom with two cubs; a mom with four cubs; another hunting trio; and at least a couple more. Cheetah in a tree (who knew?!) Cheetah cubs with bloody faces on a kill. Cheetah with a young zebra kill. And one sighting which, in some way, I would rather forget--
One morning we came upon a group of four young cheetahs to whom mom had just, apparently, delivered a young, still very much alive wildebeest calf. The cubs, not yet skilled in killing, proceeded to "play" with the calf, making half-hearted attempts to kill it, not very successfully. This went on interminably long and was heartbreaking to watch; it is one thing to see a swift kill by a skilled predator, but this was essentially watching a young animal be tortured, clearly terrified and in pain. In fact, after a short while I burst into tears and had to turn away. My husband could not watch either. We started looking out the other side of the vehicle. (We would have left but my friend, stronger-stomached than us, wanted to stay. Also there were so many vehicles around us at that point I don't think we could have left.) At some point it seemed the calf was finally dead...the cubs dragged it up the hillside...so I turned back, only to shortly see it start struggling again, trying to stand up. Momma cheetah was just sitting by, watching this training session. So I concentrated on taking photos of Mom and the occasional cub that would walk to her. Finally at some point we left. I don't know how much longer it went on. I have many photos of this encounter (at some point the guide took my camera and started shooting, so I'm not even sure which ones I took) but I don't even know if I can process them. I was prepared to see a kill--but not this way. By the way, my guide told me I am certainly not the first to burst out crying in such a situation, so I feel less embarrassed.
--Leopard: Of course, leopard was on our most-wanted list. Rumors, but no real sign of one until our last day, when our guide got wind of one in tall grass under a tree, possibly with cubs. Well it was not hard to find this tree as there were already several vehicles camped out, just waiting for it to reappear. We waited too. This was the one time I was a little disturbed by the amount of vehicles in one spot. We waited...and waited...we left to have our box lunch, and came back....more vehicles...finally...after about two hours...the leopard made an appearance. Got up, picked its way through the vehicles, went to another tree and climbed. We stayed for quite awhile watching it in the tree, but the lighting was poor, and the crowds still growing, so we left. In fact, we would have much better leopard sightings in the Serengeti.
--The Migration: the migration was in full swing in the Ndutu area and several times we encountered great herds...once an endless line of zebra and wildes running past us, dust flying, truly a thrill...took some video, can't capture it in a photo! We did see some calving or at least some just-born calves, mothers with placentas still hanging.
--So much other wildlife: many hyenas; bat-eared foxes; jackals; and a fabulous honey badger sighting, in broad daylight. We first noticed a jackal following a honey badger and a cub and we started to follow...soon the jackal was chasing the badgers and at one point, mom badger turned and hissed (either at the jackal, or at us, I'm not quite sure.) Snap! A lucky photo of a difficult animal!
Crowds: yes Ndutu is crowded, but there were just a few times it seemed disturbing or overwhelming. The leopard sighting was one. There was quite a crowd around that wildebeest/cheetah encounter but the animals did not seem to take a bit of notice. Most other times, we were often the first or only vehicle at a sighting. We had several cheetah sightings all to ourselves. The space is vast and it did seem most guides were respectful, keeping distance when an animal was hunting.
When I return to Tanzania I will surely spend more time at Ndutu.....