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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

February 15th: Ngorongoro Crater

On February 15th 1980 I was on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania.  I was trying with a friend, Audrey, to get a lift on towards Serengeti.    

I sat much of the day at the crossroads by the Conservation Area HQ; luckily there was a Boston educated Maasai there to pass the time with along with his kinsman involved in politics who had just lost 1000 cattle to thieves.  They were trying to get to their families on the slopes of Ol Doinyo Lengai, which is an isolated volcanic mountain, effectively the sacred mountain of the Maasai.  I spent much of the time admiring the lake and the flamingos down in the crater through the binoculars, and the elephants and what else I could pick out at such a huge distance.   In the end it began to rain and when that passed we gave up.  We went back to the hotel and began the diplomacy for a ride onwards the next day.

Olduvai Gorge:  My picture
The day before we had made an expedition with a few others.  The ride to the Olduvai Gorge was beautiful and there were many new mammal or bird species; the gorge itself was somewhat atmospheric though there was no time for reflection there as elsewhere on this trip.  We had two young American students doing an archaeology module, so this was a highlight of their trip, looking round the Leakey camp and seeing the homo habilis footprints.  Then we drove down into the Ngorongoro Crater itself where the concentration of animals was fantastic even if the atmosphere was not so good as up on the hills with the Maasai.  It got fairly rainy and eventually the driver got us stuck on the little rise out of a stream, and we ran out of petrol.  Some other Land-Rovers came up half an hour or so later and that was lucky, though the drivers did keep an eye out for each other.  Soon after we saw a pride of 20 lions with little cubs, and last thing before driving up in the dying light we passed the lakeside with 5 rhino and the flock of flamingos.  In the morning at the top, the concentration of flamingos had given the lake a pink surround and I had refused to believe it could be birds, thinking it must be some sort of algae.

The trip from Arusha had already been dramatic.   I spent a day at the bus stand in Arusha but expected the bus did not leave.  The next morning we did manage to get away, passing mostly through barren country with thorn trees, occasional cultivation with little villages; one enormous field with tractor was presumably an Ujamaa village, a collective farm.  There were ostriches and bustards, and little groups of Maasai on the plain.  At Mto Wa Mbu we quickly found some lodging, and took a siesta in the heat of the day.  Later we walked to the park entrance for Lake Manyara which was most enjoyable as we passed vervet monkeys, blue monkeys and baboons in numbers, and a bushbaby which a boy pointed out to us in a tree. My mind was still in a state of wonder at seeing all these wild animals.  The next day we found Mr Lini at breakfast time and managed to persuade him to take us round the park after a bowl of Maasai blood soup (not nice) and fruit breakfast.  The park was lovely even if the trip was a bit of a whirlwind.  I'd have liked to have stayed longer at the lake, but we saw everything we expected, including lions in the trees, flamingos, hippos and a young giraffe.  In the afternoon after some lounging outside the park with the Maasai, we had a beautiful journey up to Ngorongoro with a woman and 5 children, fantastic views from the car, elephants at Manyara, fish eagles and buffaloes further on.

The diplomacy for a ride on to Serengeti worked.  We were up early for a big breakfast at the Crater Lodge, then onto the truck, five of us, including two German volunteer workers.  It was a beautiful ride, one of the rides of my life; there was hardly a place where you couldn't see hundreds of Thomson's Gazelle, and plenty of wildebeest and giraffes.  I had learned about truck rides in South America, and here I was getting the greatest ride you could ask for through the most wild and beautiful country.  At Seronera, the main settlement of the Serengeti, we found the drivers' hostel and the Somali Hotel and went for a walk.   I was up on a small rise watching a number of giraffe, and some buffalo and antelope, and enjoying the hugely varied birdlife, when there was a partial eclipse of the sun.  It got quite dark, at one point 60 and f8 on the camera pointing directly at the crescent sun.   The birds settled down and went quiet, the antelope sat down and rested their heads as if to go to sleep.  Then it got light again and the animals and birds got up and went back to their normal business.

More on my visit to Serengeti here.  

Our Maasai friend at Ngorongoro told us many stories including how he had been "The Man From Serengeti" in a National Geographic Film and had gone to University in Boston as a consequence of that.  He wrote of these stories and others in his autobiography "The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior," by Tepilit Ole Saitoti.

Words and photographs are poor tools to describe this region.  Peter Matthiesson's The Tree Where Man Was Born, in the edition with Eliot Porter's photographs, makes a good attempt.    

Ngorongoro Crater:  My picture

Ngorongoro in 2007:  Picture by Sachi Gahan, CC
Ngorongoro from the crater rim, 2006:  Picture by Dongyi Liu, CC

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