Postcard from the edge of the crater

Postcard from the edge of the crater

This is week four of my journey around Tanzania. Several days ago, I entered the Northern Circuit, an itinerary that is taking me to the destinations safari legends are made of: Serengeti, the endless plain of the Masai and Lake Manyara, bright pink from thousands of flamingos. Today, I am headed for the holy of holies of East Africa’s wildlife destinations, and a place that was on by bucket list before I knew I had one, the Ngorongoro Crater.

A three-million-year-old volcano

Ngorongoro Crater dawn

Dawn rises over the Ngorongoro Crater

In the midst of rolling highlands on the southeastern border of the Serengeti National Park, the three million year old crater is all that remains of a once massive volcano. It is the largest intact caldera in the world, a large fertile bowl with permanent sources of water and steep sides that reach 600 meters (2,000 feet) above the crater floor. A diverse population of over 25,0000 animals inhabit its 260 square kilometer (100 square mile) area. It is one of the rare places in Africa that can boast to offer visitors a good chance to see all of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard) in one single game drive.

A fairy tale village

With these statistics buzzing in my mind, I can’t wait to get into the crater; until I arrive at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. I can think of very few places worthy of traveling around the world just for the pleasure of staying there, but this is definitely one of them. Perched on stilts at the very edge of the rim for a jaw-dropping view of the crater and the silvery mirror of Lake Magadi in the center of it, the lodge is a fairytale village of mud and thatch inspired by Maasai mayattas and the architecture of the Dogon villages that cling precariously to the hills of Mali, half a continent away.

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge Villa

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge villas.

However, any primitive reference stops at the door. Inside, a Victorian-inspired extravaganza awaits, with cascading crystal chandeliers reflected in antique mirrors, soaring French windows draped in miles of raw silk, and cut velvet sofas piled with jewel-toned pillows. There are urns filled with long-stem roses everywhere, even in my bathroom, on an antique pedestal behind the deep freestanding bathtub.

Roses and Rhinos

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

My villa is a retreat of serene luxury.

Then there is the over-the-top service. Morning wake-up tea is delivered to my suite in a gleaming silver tea set, with freshly baked cookies in a cut glass jar. Daily laundry is returned wrapped in crimson silk, a rose tied into its bow. In the dining room, haute cuisine meals are served with the flair of a multi-star restaurant. And when I return from dinner, there is a fire in my fireplace and a decanter of cherry set within arm’s reach of my wingchair. I wonder if they’d let me move in?

What about the wildlife?

A pair of rhinos march off to a water hole.

A pair of rhinos march off to a water hole.

Ah yes, the original reason for my visit… As anticipated, wildlife viewing is outstanding; and fortunately for me, so is my guide, Edwin. While we don’t see any leopard, we witness a cheetah kill within a half hour of my arrival into the crater. The next day, we spot 28 lions in one single morning (half of the resident population). But the game is so habituated to visitors that there is a wildlife park feel to the experience. When we stop to observe a pride, one of the lionesses comes to lounge in the shade of our vehicle.

Predictably, the high density of game draws an equal proportion of tourists. When a pair rare black rhinos is spotted crossing the open plain, I count 18 vehicles converging toward them! Fortunately Edwin anticipates the beasts’ itinerary, and whisks me to a place further down the trail, where for a moment at least, I can observe them in relative privacy.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Ngorongoro Crater

Postcard from Eden

Postcard from Eden

For the past week, I have been working my way westward, following an itinerary commonly known as Tanzania’s Southern Circuit; great swaths of stunning wilderness spread across the southern part of the country. The largest of its national parks are located here, teaming with game. Yet, due to the lack of tourism infrastructure, it is a place that most of the three quarter of a million yearly visitors to Tanzania never see.

The end of the road

Men puzzle over a tire.

“This doesn’t look good!”

Now I have reached the end of the road, literally. Katavi is the third largest park in Tanzania, and a place so remote that it only receives a handful of visitors per year. The Cessna that brought me here only comes twice a week. As for road travel, don’t even ask.

My guide meets me at the airstrip and introduces himself as Apollo. “We need to stop in town to pick up a few things,” he informs me as he heaves my duffle bag into the open land cruiser. Town turns out to be a cluster of shacks lined up along a sun-baked red dirt road. Apollo vanishes and I sit in the cruiser, glad for this rare opportunity to take in a glimpse of rural African life. A few men are crouched by the side of an eighteen-wheeler, looking quizzically at one of the tires; a woman cleans a large catfish in a plastic bucket. They pretend not to notice me while I furtively snap a few pictures. I know it’s bad etiquette but I can’t resist.

Into Eden

Katavi elephants.

Elephants stomp into the underbrush.

We careen down the road in a mist of red dust, Apollo and I, and two camp staff who have by now joined us, until we turn into a spongy track under an arch of dense foliage. A barely visible sign informs me that we have entered the park. It’s the start of the wet season. There are elephants, zebras and giraffes everywhere, gorging on tender new shoots. “You are one of only three guests,” Apollo mentions casually, as we finally emerge at the edge of the flood plain. I take it to mean at the camp, but it turns out to be in the entire park. And so it is that I settle into my personal Eden, the Katavi Wilderness Camp.

Primeval paradise

The Lyamba-Iya-Mfina escarpment.

The Lyamba-Iya-Mfina escarpment borders the flood plain.

This is Africa at its pristine best, rich in game and birds going about the rhythm of their existence just as they have for millennia, and mine alone. On the first morning, I wake up to find a herd of usually elusive elands grazing beneath my deck. My tent is a comfortable canvas bungalow under a thatched roof (and with modern plumbing). It is raised on a wooden platform overlooking the undulating expense of the reed-filled Katisuna plain and the misty outline of the Lyamba-Iya-Mfipa escarpment beyond. I could sit here all day. But Apollo awaits, eager to shown me crowned cranes dancing their mating dance in the morning sun, prides of lion lounging in the reeds, journeys of giraffes strutting across the plain and birds everywhere. For a few magical days, I experience what Eden must have been, before apples and serpents.

Location, location, location!

Katavi