Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Ngorongoro Crater and a close call with an angry lioness with (April 12-15)

Current Location: Stone Town, Zanzibar (again).
Highlights: A very close call with lions in the Ngorongoro Crater
Upcoming: My crazy bus ride back to Zanzibar, more on Zanzibar, and then its off to Kenya!

Following on from the last exciting episode...

After leaving the delightful Chumbe Island, we spent another day and very decadent night in Stone Town's Tembo Hotel, then Gena and I left the next morning (Aaron stayed on Zanzibar) on the first boat back to Dar es Salaam to drive back to Moshi and then on to the Ngorongoro Crater.

I will not go into the 550km drive back to Moshi, except to say that it is a long nasty drive in the Landy which we could not manage in one day. We stayed the night (11pm to 6 am) in the roof top tent
in the car park of the Elephant Hotel in the town of Same and were charged US$6 for the luxury of no toilets, water or anything other than a place to park. I was exhausted but continued on to Moshi, then west past Kilimanjaro onto Arusha. We followed the map along the road out of Arusha which should have taken us to the Crater, but Gena soon realized we were heading in the wrong direction, north
instead of west. We turned round and headed back to Arusha after asking for directions from a man which was followed by the usual holding out of the hands for us to give him something. At this point I was thoroughly exhausted from the driving and lack of sleep and we decided to spend the night at the Masai Camp in Arusha.

The next day we found the correct road and headed off to the Crater. I have been looking to visiting the Crater and Serengeti since I could say the word lion, so I was excited. The huge herds of animals were all in the Serengeti, so I was even more excited, but it was not to be... We drove the nice tarred road for about 100 km, and it then turned into a terrible dirt road. Actually terrible is not really a good word to describe this road, the road is absolutely abysmal and it continued to be abysmal for the next 3-4 hrs up to the park entrance gates into the Ngorongoro Crater.

So here we are at the Gates to enter the Ngorongoro Crater national Park. It is a World Heritage Site, the venue for countless nature films on its wildlife, site of some of the worlds most important fossil finds on the evolution of humans atv the Olduvai Gorge, and truly a magnificent geographical and biological spectacle. The entrance gate buildings are fairly run down and the rangers who sign you in sit behind iron bars. You are impolitely greeted and asked about your intended stay in the Crater areas as they start to add up the fees as follows: US$25 entrance fee per person per 24 hrs period, US$30 for the vehicle per day per 24 hrs period, US$10 to go down into the Crater, and US$20 each per night to camp. In all it costs US$130 for the two of us for 24 hrs and the clock starts ticking as soon as they tear the permit form the book which for us was 1.30pm. We decided that we could only afford to enter the
Crater for 24 hrs and not go onto the adjoining Serengeti.

Our first stop was to see the Olduvai Gorge which lies within the boundary of the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area on the way to the adjoining Serengeti. It was in the Gorge that the Leakys found the famous hominoid track of footprints left in soft volcanic ash by our direct descendants about 2.5 million years ago, as well as a number of fossil humanoid skulls and other bones dating back several millions of years. We got a brief talk by a resident archeologist on the history of the area and of its finds, toured around the small visitor center, then we drove down into the gorge (at an additional cost) to see one of the discovery sites of one of the skulls. We could not see the track of footprints as they lie 30 km away and
they have now been covered to preserve them. I did enjoy it when I let my imagination run, I could almost picture our human ancestors, small 1-1.5 meter tall human-like creatures, walking around in this area. But this was tainted by some sour tastes. The visitor and education center is very nice, but I found that it was only built in 1997 or 1998 and funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation in the USA. Previous to this, I am not sure if there was anything other than grass huts at one of the worlds most important sites on human evolution despite the exorbitant fee paid by visitors. Its just a real shame that little if any of the park fees go back to the park,
but more on this later.

After the Olduvai Gorge, or maybe I should use the Masai spelling of Oldupai (the local name for the plant from whick the gorge gets its name) we went back to the Simba Campsite on the rim of the actual Crater for the night. The campsite was also derelict and in decay with no water, and decrepit disgusting pit toilets. It's a shame that even some of the money brought by tourists does not actually go towards facilities used by those same tourists.

The next morning we packed up the tent and left the campsite by 6 am to pick up our Masai guide, Peter, from his house in the workers complex. If you have not been down into the Crater before you are required to have a guide go with you which was somewhat cramped in the Landy, but necessary as even if the maps of the dirt tracks are accurate, they had none left at the Park HQ!

We descended the steep road to the Crater floor and began our search for wildlife. The Crater is actually quite small and almost treeless with short grass so finding wildlife was quite easy. I can see why it has been the venue for many films as its animals are contained within the Crater walls (the plentiful food and water in the Crater means they usually choose not to leave the Crater) and it has a relativity high game population. Peter knew the territory of each of the Craters 4 prides of lions so we started to search for the closest pride. We were lucky and found them very quickly.
They had just finished picking clean a fresh buffalo kill and we could clearly see the rib cage sticking up from where we parked. Then as soon as we arrived the whole pride of 15 lions left the kill and started walking over to a drinking spot after their feast. We turned round and met up with the lions on the road at the drinking hole. We were so close we could hear them noisily lap up the water. Closely following the first half of the pride were two females and 4 year-old incredibly cute cubs. After each of the lions finished drinking, for some reason it came right up to the Landy, sniffed around, then laid down under it. They all seemed to ignore me clicking away taking pictures until the large female with the cubs came over to my window. She was about 1 meter from me with her head about half way up my door. My adrenaline started to pump as I had never been so close to such a large powerful animal with no barrier between us. I felt very mortal as I knew that in just a split second she could reach up in and pull out of the open window. The guide and Gena could not really see how close she was as I clicked away with the camera, then something alarmed her and she growled at me, almost snapping at me at which point Gena and the guide freaked out and told me to stop taking pictures. So I leaned back away form the window and she appeared to calm down, so I sneaked a few more pictures! We spent the next few hours following the lions, especially the cubs and they played and gingerly picked their way through muddy wet areas. Then Gena reminded me of the time and that we had only a few more hours in the park. We drove around
the Crater bottom and saw flamingoes, cranes, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, more lions, elephants, and lots of birds whose names I do know. We also visited a hippo pool with many hippo and hundreds of birds including pelicans. The driving on the Crater bottom was quite rough which freaked Gena out some as she was not really used to being bounced around so much, driving in deep mud, and what the Landy is capable of. Other people we talked to had gotten stuck but I am happy to say that the Edventure Landy sailed through the mud and holes without a problem. In no time at all it was time to leave. We drove the very steep exit road up the Crater side, dropped off our guide (after tipping him) and raced along the poor park roads to the exit gate which we made within 20 mins of our permit expiring.

I have to say that the Crater is incredible beautiful and has a phenomenal population of animals, its just a shame that the Park infrastructure is such a state of decay, that the guides live in little more than tin shacks, and that there is no education center for the Park given the millions of dollars paid by visitors each year.

We left the gates and decided not to drive all the way back to Arusha, but to stay the night at Twiga Campsite. Gena checked in and was told it was $10 each per night. By now Gena had become smart about the ways in Tanzania, especially in the low season, and bargained them down to $3 each for the night. On the drive to the campsite and in the town where the campsite was situated, we visited a number of craft stalls in the market where we bought and traded things like my old TEVAS for a number of nice ebony crafts. This
is a story in itself, the way the owners barter with you and you get swamped by people trying to take you to their stall. I love this, Gena is less impressed. But let me give you an idea. Gena had a Univ.of Arizona T-Shirt which one of the craft shop owners really liked. We picked a pair of Masai carvings we liked to trade and the guy wanted an additional US$35. And so the bartering began. It was a complex process of walking away, him chasing us back, him walking away etc etc. In the end he stopped us in the Landy as we were about to drive off and gave us the carvings for the T-Shirt and an
amount of cash we offered him.

After a rainy night at Twiga Campsite, we left and drove back to Moshi as Genas time with me was almost at an end. We stayed another night at Springlands Hotel in Moshi, packed and the day was gone. It was time to take Gena back to Kilimanjaro airport. This was the saddest part her visiting. Over the past two years we have had tearful good-byes at airports far too often, but this was perhaps the worst. It felt like we were being pulled apart and we were both helpless to do anything about it. I watched as Gena disappeared behind the security gate and knew that it might be a few
months before I could see her again. I was very sad on my lonely drive back to the Springlands Hotel.

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