Tanzania: Safari to Ngorongoro Crater

1st March - 5th April 2002


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Gerald, Joseph and I returned to Arusha from our successful trek to the summit of Mt Meru feeling absolutely exhausted. We had really pushed the limits, hiking for fourteen hours today, climbing 1,000m to the summit at 4,566m before descending all 3,066m of the mountain back to the park gate. The minibus dropped us outside the Mashele Guesthouse where Mama was sitting on the veranda drinking a beer. As I stepped out of the minibus and tried to walk up the three steps to the guesthouse I suddenly felt sharp pains shooting out from both my calf muscles, they almost screamed at me as I tried to walk up the steps; Mama looked on in amusement. All three of us hobbled to our rooms feeling relived that we did not have to hike anywhere tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or for the rest of the week. The last thing I wanted to do now was climb another mountain. Later in the evening we shuffled back to the local bar just down the road, the three of us looking like cripples as we carefully walked along the road trying not to over stretch our worn out leg muscles. We celebrated our achievement with a round of cold Tusker beer, even Joseph had a beer and normally he doesn't drink. The bar was packed as usual, the place a mass of people drinking and eating, hawkers squeezing through the crowds selling everything from socks and footballs to watches and kitchen knives. You may laugh but on the night before our hike we had tried to negotiate a price on the kitchen knives; Joseph needed one to do the cooking with on the mountain. Since being back in town Joseph had talked to a few local people, including our little helper, about our experience with the guides on the mountain. Apparently what happened to us is not unusual; the guides have a bad reputation. I was right though during our argument on the mountain, the only reason for taking the direct route down from the Miriakamba Hut was so that our guide could get home early.

When we first planned this trip Gerald had only booked his ticket for two weeks, a few months later he saw sense and changed it to three weeks. This gave us the opportunity to do a bit more than we had originally planned. My suggestion was to do a budget safari to see the wildlife that Africa is famous for. Joseph hadn't travelled to Arusha just for a short holiday and to help us out, he had also taken the opportunity to see a business partner in town. Back in Kenya Joseph runs a tour company, KG Expeditions, which I booked my trek to the summit of Mt Kenya with. When he has clients that want to do a tour of the parks in Kenya as well as those across the border in Tanzania, he then hands them over to his partners tour company, Safari Dreamers in Arusha. The arrangement works the other way round too. While we sat in the bar I discussed my safari plan with Joseph and asked him if he could recommend anyone in town who was a good, reliable operator. Of course he could and said we should talk to Lawrence, his friend at Safari Dreamers.

As if on cue, ten minutes later Lawrence walked into the bar, I don't know how he managed to spot us in such a crowded place, I guess Gerald's and my white skin acted as a beacon as potential clients. Lawrence stopped for a quick beer and Joseph told him about all our adventures on Mt Meru. He sympathised with us after hearing about our inept guide. When taking organised tours up the mountain Lawrence has had the same problem as he still can not choose which guide goes with his tour group, he can not even take his own porters up the mountain. We agreed to meet at Lawrence's office the next day to discuss our safari plans in more detail.

Waking up the following morning, Saturday, the two appendages formerly known as my legs refused to obey any instructions from my brain; my muscles had completely seized up overnight, I wasn't surprised. I hobbled painfully around the guesthouse trying to get them to work again. After a late breakfast we walked slowly to the Safari Dreamers office on Boma Road, the theory was that a bit of light walking would help limber up the leg muscles. The climb up the six flights of stairs to their office on the third floor was no joke either, aren't there any elevators in Africa? My plan, which I figured would work out the cheapest but still give us a good opportunity to see all the wildlife we wanted to see, was to do a two-day trip to Ngorongoro Crater. Day one we would travel to the crater, buy a twenty-four hour permit and do an evening game drive and camp overnight on the rim of the crater. Day two we would start early on a morning game drive and leave just before our permits expired. The first quote for this trip was US$240 each, far in excess of our budget. We continued negotiating and agreed on turning this safari into a group tour of four people, which would now cost us US$170 each, just over our budget but acceptable. This included, park fees, transport, a guide, a cook, meals and a few laughs. Lawrence said that he would find the two other people to join our group, but if he failed we would still just pay US$170. We left a deposit and got a lift back to the guesthouse, the walking idea had worn off and didn't seem to be working.

Joseph stayed on at the office to discuss business and agreed to meet us back at the guesthouse that afternoon before he went to catch a bus back to Nairobi at 15.00. We took the rest of the day off and did nothing except cross the street to Pizzarusha for lunch to satisfy my craving for cheese. During the afternoon I struggled in vain to stay awake so that I didn't miss Joseph when he came to say goodbye. Gerald and I both failed and we both succumbed to sleep in the heat of the afternoon. When I woke it had gone four, I had missed Joseph leaving. I was kicking myself as I really wanted to thank him for all his help and say goodbye as it would probably be a long time, if ever we saw each other again. We sat on the veranda during the evening drinking beer with Tom, who was also from England and was suffering from that terrible dilemma of whether to go home or stay in Africa.

After a few beers we became hungry and the three of us wandered back to the local bar for some nyama choma. I had earlier in the day seen a fresh beef carcass hanging out the back ready to be barbecued, which had whet my appetite. The place was busier than usual, it was Saturday night, and we squeezed through the crowds looking for some spare chairs and a table. I glanced at a familiar face in the crowd sitting by himself on a stool at the bar drinking a bottle of soda, it was Joseph, he hadn't returned home after all. Business had taken longer than planned that afternoon and he had missed the last transport to the Kenyan border at Namanga. He had found a cheaper guesthouse just down the road and had left a message with a watchman at our guesthouse, who had never passed it on to us. We found a table and were soon joined by Joseph's little helper, it was a good evening and a fine way to say goodbye to a good friend.

At 09.00 on Sunday morning a Landrover pulled up outside the guesthouse, it was time to go on safari. We first went back to the office on Boma Road to finish off the paperwork and pay the balance due. There was an almighty huge backpack in the back of the Landrover, Lawrence had managed to find one other person to join us on our safari. We met Trevor, the owner of the backpack complete with a weather system circling around the top, at the office. He was a South African who had moved to the United States a few years ago and had taken two and a half months off work to do a quick trip around the world; Britain, Tanzania, Madagascar, South Africa and Australia. Once the final dollars had exchanged hands we were introduced to our guide, Dick and our cook, Dell and then drove out of Arusha for the 160km journey to Ngorongoro Crater.

The road crossed the plains towards the dramatic western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley is one of the world's largest geological features, stretching 6,500km from Turkey to Mozambique. It was formed by the outward movement of two tectonic plates, which split the earths crust along two parallel fault lines and the centre section dropping down forming these steep sided escarpments. As the land dropped it compressed the magma below the crust causing volcanoes to erupt through other miner fault lines, some many kilometres from the Rift Valley. This is how the giant volcanoes of Kilimanjaro, Mt Meru, Mt Kenya and Mt Elgon were formed as well as the Crater Highlands and the caldera of Ngorongoro Crater.

We were once again in Maasai territory and on route we passed many traditional Maasai villages and their herds of cattle roaming in the bush. Lake Manyara lies at the foot of the escarpment, which is also a national park, rich in bird life as well as hippos and tree-climbing lions. The lake is alkaline and at certain times of the year is home to thousands of flamingos; we stopped at the top of the escarpment to gaze at the dramatic views across the lake. We continued on past fertile farmland towards the Crater Highlands climbing up steeply to Ngorongoro Crater, the dirt road winding up the outer slope of the crater flanked by thick forest with troops of baboons running across the road in front of us. We stopped again at a viewpoint looking down into the crater and saw our first tantalising glimpses of the wildlife that the crater is famous for. With Gerald's binoculars we could see lone elephants strolling across the crater floor below us as well as huge herds of buffalo. The Crater Highlands rise up from the side of the Great Rift Valley and overlook the Serengeti plains to the west. The highlands stretch roughly from Lake Eyasi, in the south, to Lake Natron in the north and consist of a range of volcanoes. These include Oldeani, 3,185m, the still active Oldoinyo Lengai, 2,878m as well as calderas, older volcanoes that have eroded and collapsed, the most famous one being Ngorongoro. Ngorongoro is one of the largest calderas in the world, at almost 20km wide, it is Tanzania's most visited wildlife reserve and probably one of the best-known wildlife reserves in Africa.

We drove clockwise around the crater rim to the Simba campground, there was no one else there when we arrived. The campground was just a large field with a row of latrines and washrooms along one side and one huge lone shady tree in the middle of the field. The views looked out across the crater and the more expensive lodges perched on the crater rim. While Dick and Dell set up camp they left us under the shady tree armed with a lunch box each. Some of the food looked slightly dodgy, Trevor couldn't work out why his piece of chicken was hairy. We kept joking with Dell, the cook, about the hairy chickens; later he told us that he hadn't made the lunchboxes but had bought them from a shop, I think he was getting worried that we wouldn't tip him because of a hairy chicken. There was a slice of very strange cake in the box too, at first glance it looked like an ordinary slice of sponge cake with this rather strange pink stripe down one side. I honestly think that there must have been some secret ingredient in the cake, while eating we began laughing for no reason at all, then Trevor began to tell some of his jokes. We sat under the tree in stitches for ten minutes or more, finally my head hurt so much I couldn't laugh anymore. The strange thing is I don't know what was so funny, or can even remember any of Trevor's jokes. We climbed into the Landrover to go on our evening game drive congratulating Dell on the superb cake with the magic ingredient.

We were still laughing sporadically as we drove from the Simba camp to the entry road down to the crater floor on the western side of the crater rim. The narrow track descends the 600m to the crater floor, it was like descending into another world, the views were stunning. In front of us was Lake Magadi, a large, shallow soda lake where thousands of pink flamingos waded. The roof of the Landrover had three hatches, which flipped open, allowing us to stand and have an uninterrupted view across the bright green grass and at the huge herds of herbivores grazing across the base of the crater. These included; Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra; this was also the first time I saw ostriches strutting through the grass. There are thirteen rhinos living in the crater and on our evening drive we saw eight of them. The rim of the crater is about 2,200m above sea level, cloud spilled over the northern rim and thunder rumbled around the crater. From the centre of the crater the 360 degree views were dramatic, the lucid green grass contrasting with the grey, rain swept walls of the crater and the heavy skies above. I was disappointed at the lions we saw that evening, mostly we only saw a couple of ears twitching in the grass or the occasional sweep of a tail. On the way to the exit road on the southern side of the rim we passed by elephants, walking majestically across the crater floor before we climbed up the forested slope and back to the Simba camp for dinner.

By the time we returned to the campsite it was packed; we looked more like a bunch of refugees than tourists, sitting in the field eating our dinner. We had a couple of bottles of South African red wine with us that made the perfect accompaniment to Dells cooking. At 2,200m it was cold at night and after sitting around a campfire for a couple of hours and finally exhausting Trevor's supply of jokes, we retired to our tents, which we hoped were hyena proof. The only wildlife I heard during the night was a bush pig snorting as it shuffled past my tent, no hyenas though. Dick and Dell woke us for breakfast at 06.00. It was still dark, misty and raining; everyone headed to the relative dry of the shelters next to the latrines to eat breakfast. The roof of the shelter did leak but it was better than the rather inhospitable, cold and wet weather outside. At 06.30, as the distant horizon began to brighten, we drove back to the crater, leaving Dell the unenviable job of packing up camp.

We drove through the semi dark along the now slippery red clay road around the rim, the rain lashing against the windscreen and water pouring along the gutters of the road. I began to have my doubts whether we would be able to see any wildlife this morning, stuck inside a steamed up Landrover unable to open the hatches in the roof. We were the second vehicle to descend into the crater that morning and once again were greeted by the huge herds of herbivores spread across the base of the crater. At this hour of the day it is possible to see leopard; they are nocturnal creatures and hunt by night. The best chance of seeing one would be in the trees to the south as they climb trees to eat their prey and to protect their meal from scavengers. As we drove along the tracks through the trees, the rain finally eased off and we were able to once again open the roof hatches and take our positions standing. Unfortunately we did not find any leopard, the only disappointment of the trip. We made up for yesterdays rather sketchy lion sightings when we came across a pride of lions, feeding on a kill with their cubs playing in the grass. We saw lots of lions during the morning, one walking right past the Landrover, almost brushing up against the paintwork. We found another three male lions just lying next to the road who were oblivious to our presence as we peered down at them from the Landrover.

We had a close encounter with an elephant that was grazing in a marsh by the side of the road, he crossed the road right behind us. It was a magnificent sight to see such a large animal walk so gracefully past us. On our circuit we came across nearly every animal you could think of including, spotted hyena, jackal, baboons, hippos wallowing in a muddy pool and the biggest herds of wildebeest, buffalo, zebra and gazelle that you could imagine. The last highlight of the trip was spotting a family of cheetah lying in the grass. They were a fair way from the road and with the naked eye all you could really see were ears twitching in the grass, although with Gerald's binoculars we could see fairly clearly the cheetahs just lazing about in the now warm sunshine. We drove out of the crater very happy at all the wildlife we had seen. At times it didn't seem real, that these were truly wild animals and that we were not at some theme park; it was a fantastic experience and one that I shall not forget for a long time. Back at the Simba camp, Dell had been busy packing up camp and cooking us lunch, which was just ready to be served when we returned. After lunch we drove back to Arusha but had to race to the park gate to leave before our twenty-four hour permits expired. We checked back in to the Mashele Guesthouse for the very last time, the place really felt like our home now. It would be sad to leave tomorrow but we had our next adventure to embark on, trekking in the Usambara Mountains.

Continue reading this journey: Trekking the Usambara Mtns