The first minutes in Tanzania’s famed Ngorongoro crater were neatly summed up by a small boy.

“It looks just like England.”

An embarrassed silence suffused the Land Rover. All aboard had paid a considerable sum to be here (Tanzania safari tourism is high quality but a great deal more expensive than in neighboring Kenya). All aboard had arrived expecting what conservationist professor Bernhard Grzimek described as “a wonder of the world.” And not just Grzimek — everyone raves about the Ngorongoro crater.

Ngorongoro National Park in Tanzania, where lions are lions, and zebras are nervous.

But the kid had a point. It did look uncannily like England. The grass was green, clipped short like a well-grazed and determinedly tedious paddock. The ground was flat and unexciting. There were zebra, sure, loads of zebra, but they were just standing around. Frankly, they looked like bored, overpainted horses waiting for some yeoman farmer to stroll along with a fork-full of hay.

For a long couple of minutes the Land Rover trundled along, the forced bright smiles of its passengers testifying to the crushing sense of anticlimax.

Then the lions arrived, the females slat-ribbed, panting and yellow-eyed. The males were maned, dusty, magnificent, but like the females very, very hungry.

Something imperceptible had happened to the landscape too. While we were all privately moping about the dashing of our dreams, and the stolid indifference of the zebra, the grassland had become charged, unpredictable and wild.

Ngorongoro stopped looking like England.

The actual crater itself is immense. It covers 264 sq. km, making it one of the largest, intact and unflooded volcanic calderas in the world. (A caldera is what is left when the cone of a volcano collapses.) While in its conical prime the Ngorongoro volcano may well have exceeded Mount Kilimanjaro in scale.

The crater’s steep 600-meter-high walls that survived the volcano’s subsidence are but a shadow of what once was. They are still impressive, however, if they have not been swallowed by heat haze and shimmering mirages. Every visit to the crater floor involves a precarious descent from the forested rim by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Although animal populations fluctuate, the permanent water and rich pasturage on the crater floor maintain a resident population of between 20,000 and 25,000 large animals. The species list here reads like a safari-goer’s wish list: Giraffe. Black rhinoceros. Ostrich. Leopard. Gnu. And so on, and, in all honesty, on and on again. It’s all here.

Curiously, only bull elephants visit the crater floor. The herds of females and juveniles confine themselves to the crater rim forests. No one’s sure why.

It is safe to say that you can bump into anything anywhere at any time on the crater floor. High drama — a pack of hyenas dismembering a buffalo, gnus in rut or a secretary bird kicking a snake to death — is never far away.

Insects (and other humans) excepted, hippos kill more people annually than any other animal species in Africa. There are always hippos at the aptly named hippo pool on the edge of the Mandusi Swamp and, quite frequently, there are thunderously ferocious exchanges between yellow-tusked bulls.

One of the oddest parts of the crater is the Lerai Forest. Here gigantic yellow-barked acacia trees dwarf the elephants that seek shade. A peaceful spot.

If you want to be mugged by vervet monkeys then the nearby toilets at the Lerai rest site are a must. Your guide will probably remind you to close the car windows when stopping here, but if he forgets, remind him. Evicting a troop of enraged vervet monkeys from a vandalized Land Rover is, at best, something of a challenge.

If you’d prefer to have your lunch stolen by African kites then stop for a picnic at Ngoitokitok’s delightful springs. The large brown hawks have perfected the stuka technique of a pinpoint target swoop, combined with a back wing-punch to one’s head.

Lake Makat (also called Magadi) can be full of water, or it can be a glaring expanse of crystalized soda littered with buffalo skulls. It depends on the rains. The same goes for the nonpermanent Munge stream, whose bed is a favored ambush point for both lions and serval cats. There is a greater density of predators in the crater than anywhere else in the world.

Huge though the crater is, it is still just a fragment of the much larger Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which covers 83,000 sq. km of mountains, other volcanic craters, highland forests and part of the grassy sea that constitutes the Serengeti Plains.

Access to much of the area must be prearranged with the NCA authorities, but the effort is very worthwhile. Other than Ngorongoro crater itself, the NCA’s most famous feature may be Olduvai Gorge. Here, in 1959, the irrepressible Leakey family discovered the first skull of Zinjanthropus. “Zinj,” as this huge-skulled 1.75-million-year-old hominid was informally known, was subsequently renamed Australopithecus boisei. The discovery rocked the archaeological world.

Thanks to the Leakeys’ endeavors we now know that Olduvai has been home to hominids for at least 3.5 million years. Fossilized footprints attest to this; indeed, it may be the place where our ancestors first learned the trick of walking erect, thereby keeping their hands free for other important work.

Although a few species, such as the giant horned giraffe or the three-toed horse, are no longer around, this landscape, the cradle of man, fundamentally has altered little in the intervening years, and neither has the fauna.

Of less scientific significance, but well worth a look, are the Shifting Sands. This 10-meter-high crescent-shaped dune, or barchan, is on a determined march to meet up with the nearby road. At its current rate of advance it should make it by the next millennium.

In its wake the dune leaves a litter of dead dung beetles. The scarab beetles developed from grubs left in dung balls buried by their mothers, and dug their way to what should have been the surface only to discover that the Shifting Sands were passing overhead. Years later the dune moves on, and finally the preserved corpses get to feel the hot, timeless Tanzanian sun.

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