Last weekend (7/4 and 7/5) I had the quintessential African safari experience, booking four Toyota Landcruisers to take us to Lake Manyara on Saturday and Ngorongoro Crater on Sunday. Both these areas were decently far away, near the city of Karatu, which has a drier climate and is known for its red soil. On the way there, we passed through many areas of arid semi-desert with many Maasai children herding cows and goats along the side of the road.
We stopped in Lake Manyara National Park first, which is famous for its tree-climbing lions. Lake Manyara itself is a shallow lake in the Great Rift Valley which splits Africa from the Red Sea all the way down to Zambia, and is situated below a long wall of sheer cliffs. We drove straight from the highway onto the park’s dirt roads, and we opened up the Landcruiser’s roof so that we could stand up with unobstructed as we drove through – as long as we dodged the tree branches and acacia thorns.
Almost immediately, we saw entire troops of baboons (nyane) walking through the fields, from the intimidatingly big alpha males to the small babies clutching onto their mothers’ backs and stomach. After a while, the trees opened up into some open grasslands and swamps, and I caught my first glimpses of wildebeest and zebra. Next came the hippo pond, where we saw plenty of hippopotamus (kiboko) hanging out in the swamps and rolling around in the mud with some white birds resting on their backs.
Next came a small group of giraffes (twiga) in the distance, which actually ended up being the only giraffes I saw the whole trip, even though they’re not particularly rare. I kept looking out for the tree-climbing lions as well, but they never made an appearance. Stopping for lunch in a picnic area near the shore of the lake, we saw some vultures feasting on a recently dead wildebeest as well as the huge numbers of flamingoes in the lake itself, grouped in such huge numbers they looked like pink islands in the distance.
Overall, Lake Manyara gave me a great taste of what was to come the next day in Ngorongoro Crater, which was going to be the more spectacular of the two trips. The excitement for the day wasn’t over though – we soon arrived at the Acacia Farm Lodge in Karatu, which was our hotel for the night. I wasn’t sure what the expect in terms of accommodations.
I immediately knew we were in for quite an experience as we pulled up the hotel as we were greeted by most of the hotel staff standing in front of reception singing and holding glasses of fresh guava juice and hot towels to wipe off the layer of dust accumulated on my hair and face from the open roofed Landcruiser. After weeks of cold bucket showers and other more spartan living conditions than I was used to, being suddenly thrust into a world with gourmet chefs, hot showers, huge suites, and a swimming pool were quite a shock. This was the rich tourist’s experience of Tanzania, which we fortunately got to have for a pretty cheap price with our group discount and negotiations with the safari outfit.
Refreshed and clean, we left early the next morning to the main event of the weekend, Ngorongoro Crater. The crater itself used to be a huge volcano that collapsed into itself when it went extinct, creating a 100 square mile circular hole in the ground ringed by sheer cliffs. It also had the effect of concentrating a ton of animals inside, a huge enclosure like a natural zoo.
The early morning was extremely cold as we headed up into the damp clouds in the mountains surrounding the crater, making standing up in the Landcruiser a chilly experience. After heading through thick clouds up and down the mountains, finally, we emerged beneath the clouds spectacularly into the huge open space of the crater. Words don’t do the scene justice, but luckily I have pictures!
Lake Manyara was amazing, but Ngorongoro crater reached an entirely new level of safari experience. It legitimately looked like something you might find in a nature documentary or a zoo – huge herds of wildebeest mixed with zebra, water buffalo, impala, and ostriches just casually roamed around the landscape, unafraid of the Landcruisers, all mixed together. Again, pictures do it more justice.
We also saw some hyena, as well as some great bustards (another kind of large bird). There was also an extremely rare black rhinoceros (kifaru) in the distance, one of only a couple dozen in the entire park. I also saw a pride of lions in the distance, watching over the whole scene.
My favorite part of Ngorongoro, though, was in the acacia forest near one of the edges. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of huge group of elephants (tembo) snacking on the huge thorns of the acacia trees without so much as a second thought. Some of the larger ones were bigger than the entire Landcruiser, and they were definitely intimidating as they stood guard over the young when the walked right in front of us.
They got so close to us that our drive grabbed my leg and told me to sit down, and I absolutely followed his instructions. The funniest moment of the day came after our driver, George, quieted us all down and it was silent except for the munching of the elephants and the snapping of pictures from the other Landcruisers around us. During this silence, George accidentally leaned on the horn of the Landcruiser, making us all jump and getting stares from other tourists, drivers, and elephants alike.
Eventually, we made our way out of the crater, getting some more spectacular views. On the crater rim, which wasn’t more than 100 yards wide in places, we could see both the crater below and the valley floor on the other side.
On the way back to Arusha, we rounded off our weekend safari tour with a stop at a traditional Maasai village. While we were there, we got to witness and participate in some of the traditional dances, where the Maasai jump as high as they can in sandals made out of car tires. They also showed us the dark and smoky interiors of one of their traditional mud huts, demonstrated traditional fire making with sticks, and explained to us their traditional diet. The Maasai are not at all vegetable eaters, much to the chagrin of mothers everywhere – they live on a diet of only meat (cow and goat), milk, and blood which they take from a cow’s neck once a month. Only in recent years have they also supplemented their diet with ugali, a maize paste which is a staple food in Tanzania.
The entire collection of huts was headed by one man, with one hut for each of his wives. Traditionally, a Maasai man can only begin to marry once he has tracked down and killed a lion, but in recent years (after the “changes,” as our guide termed it) this practice isn’t adhered to so much. Cows and goats were everywhere, and as we were leaving we saw some of the children heading in for the night with their flocks, holding onto their herding sticks. Children start herding flocks as young as five, roaming for many miles.
On the way back, it was also explained to me that the Maasai village we visited wasn’t just a showpiece; many Maasai still truly do live just like the ones we visited. As a tribe, the Maasai of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya have held onto their culture in a way unsurpassed by most of the other tribes in the area, in part due to their wealth (cattle is an expensive commodity).
When I finally got back to my homestay in the much more urbanized region of Arusha, I could only think about how I couldn’t wait to get back out into the wilder regions of Tanzania.