Tanzania: Arusha and Ngorongoro Crater

Whew. Busy and exhausting two days. In the last 48 hours, my group has arrived in (and left) Dar es Salaam, flown via propeller plane to Arusha, seen Mt. Kilimanjaro, driven for hours over all kinds of roads in an old-school 4X4, passed local villages and markets, watched traditional Masai herders with their cows and goats (and driven past their very-active traditional villages…these are not tourist attractions; these are real homes for real people) and driven into the Ngorongoro Crater, a mini bio-sphere with all of the Big Five (of which we saw four) and many other animals. 

So…yes. Tired. Very tired.

Let’s see. We were up just after dawn in Dar es Salaam to catch our flight to Arusha on Precision Air, which was on a small propeller plane with the seats and windows below the wings rather than above them. We were met at Arusha-Mt. Kilimanjaro airport by Ephata Lotashu, a local and expert guide with the Africa Adventure Company. We had a quick tour of Serena Mountain Village, a hotel built in the middle of a coffee plantation, and of Gibb’s Farm, which is a combination extended-stay hotel and fully functioning farm. (The rooms at Gibb’s are all unique, and the furniture and art were all made by local artisans and artists.)

We drove on to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a 3,200-square-mile World Heritage Site with mountains, savannahs and forests filled with wildlife. As we headed up a mountain, Ephata told us to close our eyes. After a minute, we were ordered to look to our left and open our eyes. And when we did, the whole Ngorongoro Crater stretched out beneath us, nearly perfectly circular and largely flat. The Crater was formed by a long-extinct collapsed volcano, and the surrounding mountains serve as walls around the 102-square-mile floor. 

Inside the crater is a good range of landscapes, which means all kinds of animals can live there quite well. Leopards hide in the forest with the baboons. Elephants wander in the tall grass. Cape buffalo stand around (like buffalo do) and get chased by the lions in the shorter grassy areas. Hippos wallow in the lakes and creeks, and rhinos nap wherever they want to, because who’s going to tell a rhino to move?

We continued on to Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, which sits right on the Crater’s rim and has some spectacular views of the landscape. (Also, there are no fences around the Lodge, so animals can and do wander around the cabins.) The Lodge could be best described as a mix of roughin’ it and upscale luxury: The food in the dining hall is varied and really delicious (whatever is on the menu, tell your clients to go for the local specialty. Try something new!), and the lobby has a swimming pool that overlooks the crater. The rooms also have floor-to-ceiling windows with rocking chairs and killer views…but they don’t have phones, and hot water is available only at certain hours. It’s a small price to pay for the convenient location and the (quite literally) awe-inspiring views, but some clients may need convincing. 

We were awakened by loud knocking on the doors just before dawn (remember, no phones?), and had a lovely buffet breakfast in the main lodge (tell your clients to try the millet—it’s sort of like a porridge, but different) before checking out and heading into the Crater as the sun rose. Within minutes, we saw a herd of cape buffalo milling around in the road, and managed to see a pride of lions (feasting on another buffalo), two bull elephants and a sleepy rhino who had no intention of coming closer to the road to pose for photos. 

While some private game reserves in South Africa allow off-road driving to track game, public parks like Ngorongoro do not, so Ephata could not drive across the flat grasslands to get a closer look at the rhinos and lions and other wildlife. And a word on that: The park is open to the public, so your clients can rent a car and drive into the Crater themselves if they want…but just as I wrote in South Africa, they shouldn’t. A trained guide will know how to respond to different wild animals, and unless your clients know how to tell if an elephant is showing dominance, they should hire a professional to show them around. 

A highlight of the game drive came just as we left a rest area by the lake (where we had been watching hippos wallow). As we drove around a corner, we were suddenly face-to-face with a lioness…and we realized from the way she was sniffing the air and stealthily walking that she was on the prowl…and then we realized that what she smelled were the people still picnicking at the rest area…who had no idea she was there, much less hunting them. We (and a few other cars) drove back to the rest area and alerted the picnickers, who quickly jumped back into their cars, and we all followed the lioness as she set her sights on a journey of zebras (yes, a group of zebras is called a journey. Why they can’t just call ’em a herd or a group or a pack is beyond me, but there you go. A journey). We left her there watching the zebras and wondered how that whole circle-of-life drama played out. 

Also: Oldupai Gorge (formerly known as Olduvai) is about an hour’s drive from the Crater, so history buffs should book time to visit the Gorge and spend some time in the museum. We couldn’t, alas, but your clients should definitely try if they have any interest in the history of human evolution. 

And now we’re at the Ngorongoro Manor, a lovely little property (you guessed it) surrounded by coffee bushes. The cabins are huge (and have two-sided fireplaces); hot water is available all day long; and Wi-Fi is available in the lobby. They also have a wide range of activities that I’d love to try if we had more time here, like surprisingly affordable spa treatments ($70-$80 for an hour-long massage, $60 for 40-minute-long body scrubs, etc.), horseback riding ($25 per hour) and bicycle rides. Sadly, we’re checking out tomorrow morning, so I’ll report back later on how dinner at the lodge is. 

Tomorrow: The Karibu trade show and a tour of Arusha.


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