The two hour flight from Zanzibar to Arusha in the Cessna Grand Caravan was my first look on Africa’s inland. I was impressed by the vast untouched areas, without roads or other signs of human presence except some rare and tiny Masai villages. The first thing you see when you get off the plain in Arusha is a sign on the small terminal building, “Welcome to the Geneva of Africa” 🙂 The regional airport is really basic, for international flights there is the nearby Kilimanjaro International.
Ole was waiting for us in the reception area. The short, clean-face Masai greeted us with a warm smile and a limp handshake and led us to our Land Cruiser. What a disappointment! When we booked, I was the impression that Land Cruiser means one of these super-lux SUVs that travel the European highways. This car looked like coming from the 80’s, with a very basic interior. It was only after we traveled for a couple of days on the Tanzanian rough roads and went off road in Ndutu that I finally understood why they do not use fancy SUVs for safari. They would break them within one week.
We headed to Lake Manyara, a National Park around a shallow lake, 100 km east of Arusha. Ole was very talkative during the hour drive and explained in great detail the Masai culture, including the infamous circumcision rituals. Ole proved to be well educated with a degree in Environmental Studies and a passion for nature and wildlife. After three days, we developed a friendship that lasts to date.
The first contact with wildlife in a natural habitat is magic and ours was no exception. Lake Manyara is better known for the monkeys and herbivores so our first encounter was naturally a troop of baboons. Babies playing and suckling, adults grooming and fighting and me clicking furiously my Canon. Then it was a family of elephants, crossing our way and approaching within five meters from our vehicle. Then came the giraffes, the buffalo, the hippos, they zebras and the wildebeest, the blue monkeys and the different strange looking birds. Magic!
At 6pm we left to Karatu, a nearby town, where Gibbs Farm is located. A beautiful, quiet lodge close to the Ngorongoro crater with nice rooms and excellent service. The next morning we woke up before dawn in a misty magical landscape and greeted by a couple of bush babies. Our destination was the Ngorongoro crater. Shortly, we arrived at the entrance of the conservation area where the asphalt ends.
Entering the Ngongoro conservation area
The half hour drive to the top of the caldera, at 2’200m altitude is a narrow and rough. The temperature fell considerably and the rain forest dominated the landscape. The crater is the result of a big volcanic eruption 2-3 million years ago and is the world’s largest unfilled and intact volcanic caldera. The floor stands at 1800m high, 600m deep and covers an area of 260km². It is a unique place with abundant wildlife.
We descended to the floor of crater where you can watch lions, elephants, wildebeest, zebras, hippos, rhinos, buffalo, flamingos, marabou storks, gray crowned cranes and some more. It can get pretty crowded by safari vehicles here and we were fortunate to arrive first and get some great views free from tourists and other vehicles.
The vehicles here cannot leave the road network, so you cannot get really close to the animals unless they decide to come close to you. We were lucky to see three rhinos, a very rare sighting as there are less than 15 still around. We spent some wonderful four hours driving around and watching wildlife before we left to Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world. Homo habilis occupied this area some 1.9 million years ago. If you are fascinated by the origins of humankind, this place will put a spell on you but there is a lot to be done to make it more attractive to tourism. Next: Ndutu, South Serengeti.