- Norman Stansfield, Luc Besson's Leon, The Professional
Dawn on the Crater Rim and major themes seemed to be brutal cold, and sophomoric humor:
Jamie: Does anyone have any clothing, of any sort, they can lend me?
Me: I've got some dirty underwear. Some dirty boxers for your head, perhaps . . . some crusty socks for your hands?
Jamie: Lovely. Someone call us when breakfast is ready.
Me: I've got some hot sausage for you. "Hot pastrami for your breakfast / Hot pastrami can't be beat / Hot pastrami for your breakfast / Bite-sized and ready to eat!"
Mark: Don't worry, it'll be much warmer in the chicken-wire building where they're serving. Oh, look a special treat: ice cream! Jesus . . .
Each of us wearing every one of our layers, we piled into the LandCruisers, and began the harrowing, switch-back, 610-meter descent to the Crater floor. When we hit bottom, I took a number of shots trying to capture the exceptional atmosphere pooled up in the bowl there, just lapping at the distant crater walls. Cut off from the world, teeming with privileged citizens, it truly was like a lost kingdom.
The road in (one goes down, another up) touched down near Lerai Forest (one of the aforementioned areas of varied Ngorogoro Crater terrain), so into the Forest Perilous we rolled. It was here that Mark decided he liked sitting on the roof better than standing through the open panel, and so we dubbed him our Safari Buddha. It was also here that, in the wake of the bumpy descent, someone with a bladder the size of a hummingbird's (and I shall remain nameless) had to take life and limb in hand and exit the vehicle to relieve himself. On the upside, there was plenty of cover on the ground, for modesty, for once.
I slapped my second and last decent-sized memory card into the camera, and got busy happily shooting these bad boys. Susan was unimpressed, though. She wanted more lions. "We're going to have to put you in a 12-step program for people with compulsive lion issues." "I want a lion KILL." Ismail said he would see what he could do. We exited the forest and were immediately re-struck by the size of this place:
Me: How big is this thing?We proceeded to roll across the plains, witnessing amazing things:
Ismail: 19 kilometers by 16 kilometers.
Laura: It's said you can fit Paris in here.
Jamie: . . . But not London, I bet.
Me: No you can barely fit London in England, at this point.
- Wildebeast but with a little elbow room for once!
- Crowned Cranes the Ugandan national bird.
- Conceivably agoraphobic warthogs. And a pair who got into a ferocious, squealing tussle.
- More buffalo. (I can't get enough, personally.) Many more buffalo.
- Free-range zebra.
- Zebra and wildebeast in a crazily romantic setting.
- Crowned Cranes on the wing.
- Bad-news hyenas straight outta Manduusi Swamp.
- Scheming lions looking down on the world's largest hot buffet, from the high ground of the Acacia woodlands.
We then stumbled upon a lion kill (one after the fact). Two females had taken down a zebra and were waiting for their Prince Charming to come and eat of it. So the way it works is this: The lionesses do all the hunting. Then, when they're successful, they have to sit around, hungry, and wait for the male (who's probably been sunning himself) to come and eat first. However, this isn't as lopsided a division of labor as it first sounds. The job of the male lion is to protect the food once it's off the hoof. You see, female lions can conceivably be driven off of a kill by a sufficiently large and aggressive pack of hyenas, for instance. But nothing nothing fucks with a male lion. Hence the "King of the Jungle" moniker as well as the adaptation of the large mane, which make them look even bigger and badder than they are.
But stumbling upon a lion's recent kill is not the same thing as seeing a lion make a kill live and in person. This is another of the acknowledged grails of safari; and luckily, thrillingly, somewhat amazingly we got to see one. We'd followed a gaggle of 4x4s over to a water's edge where some lions were hanging out. It turned out to be a very prepossessing group of three two females and a young male. (Note the one on the right is just drop-dead cute she looks uncannily like a Hanna-Barbera lion, to my eye at least.)
On the other side of our line of gawkers, however, was a good-sized herd of zebra. And it seemed that our trucks were serving to screen the lions a bit; and, if I'm not giving them too much credit, they seemed to sense this and use us a blind. Also, the presence of the vehicles appeared to be causing a bit of general confusion, or at least distraction, amongst the zebra. The zebra began to wander in a bit closer. Seeing this, the lions began to perk up markedly; their attention was being well held. We in particular, Susan started to get our hopes up that we might see some action. Still, there were a good 60 yards between the two groups. "No way," said Mark, shaking his head. "They couldn't catch them, from that range, in a million years. The lions know it. The zebras know it. They're just taunting them."
And but then a couple of the trucks shifted forward a bit, providing even better cover; and the zebra scurried around, seemingly a little more oblivious. And the lioness on the left (the leader, apparently) got ambition. She pulled herself up and forward, wheeling intently around the front end of our truck, radiating a sort of businesslike enthusiasm, a jolly ferocity and then accelerated like a 110V device plugged into 220V current. Boom! Off she flew, toward the zebra in general, and a group of three two adults and a baby in particular. Our killer had her eye on the young one.
While this was beginning, and all was chaos, the second lioness took off and hurled herself at the striped group on the right, gunning for an adult that was a little closer than the others. For a moment, we were following two life-or-death spectacles. Three, technically: the male also got into the action; but, for adolescents, hunting is still play, and this guy was really just screwing around. Not so the two females, who were in deadly earnest.
We looked back to the initial contest, where the group of three zebra had spotted the lion charging into them, and bucked and bolted but, unfortunately for them, right toward some water, in an area of depressed ground. They were forced to wheel and come back around and the baby was a split second slower in doing so. For this she paid the price: the lioness fell on her from behind, and down she went, her neck broken in an instant. Within a second or two, the other drama played out as well; the second lioness had chased her (full-sized) prey into and through a similar wet depression. As the zebra frantic, bucking pulled herself up over the embankment, the lion leapt, and scored her paws into the zebra's rump. There followed a brief, spasmodic struggle but in the mud the lioness lost her footing, and then her grip, and the zebra pulled up, and away, and then was galloping for the far horizon (right behind the rest of the herd).
Still, there was blood on the floor and, for the predators, food on the table. The two others joined their triumphant colleague, and the three took up a joyful vigil over the felled prey. (This consisted, in part, of rolling around on their backs around the small body; they were obviously well-pleased with themselves.) We stayed and watched this for some time, in part waiting for our adrenaline levels to unspike. That was a ride! Definitely the most thrilling thing we'd seen in Africa. And so the humans were well-pleased with themselves, as well.
In the following days, I couldn't banish from my head the image of that first lioness picking herself up and taking off. It seemed to make sense of, bring to life, all the coiled potential energy we'd seen in lions lounging around. I mean, even at rest, there's a strong intimation of power, speed, grace and soulless ferocity. But when all that comes to life, it's a whole different animal. Picking up and accelerating right before us, her head was extended forward, shoulders hunched, body slung low, muscles rippling under furrowed skin, huge paws seeming to pull herself, piston-like, across the terrain . . . until she launched into a full gallop, still broadcasting massive focus, poise and menace. It's genuinely difficult to imagine such a formidable creature coming after you; but, then, you don't really want to. It's cliche, but "beautiful and deadly" gets it just about right.
Okay, I mentioned there were a few Kodak Award Winners from this day shots that really achieved my (perhaps too-lofty) ambitions in the matter and that they'd be in a special section. Looking back now, I feel that the Ngorogoro pictures (unlike those from Serengeti) are really entirely decent, and accomplished much of what I'd been aiming at. But, still, here are a few conspicuous standouts:
Knee Deep and Pink | Peaceable Kingdom
Going into Ngorogoro, we had been promised black rhino and how. But the rainy season had just begun, and only grass was blooming and rhino, big fellows that they are, need shrubs. Moreover, while we had technically seen rhino at Etosha, we had barely seen them and I'd gotten no photos. As well, the "good luck" that accrues to those who spot the Big 5 is technically only for those who spot them close together in time it doesn't count to see them all at some point in your lifetime, for instance. (And Etosha had gotten a ways behind us.) But our luck did not abandon us: as we headed for the exit and as the clouds, mist, and rain rolled in one lonely black rhino appeared in the distance. She ambled a little closer . . . turned to profile . . . and I got my shot. With that, we climbed radically out of the Crater's bowl, pausing at an overlook for one last lovely farewell.
Next: Snows on Kilimanjaro.