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
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.
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
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?
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.