After three relatively uneventful nights in Arusha, the unofficial gateway city for Tanzanian safaris, we were more-than-ready to commence our 7-day-yet-took-7-months-to-plan expedition in the remote African savannah. Equipped with snacks, drinking water, and a new SIM card that was promised to “definitely probably” function in the event of an emergency, we loaded up our recently-delivered 4x4 vehicle for our upcoming self-drive adventure – A 24-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser – The ultimate “don’t judge a book by its cover” vehicle. While visually exuding zero confidence to survive arguably the “worst roads in Africa,” apparently the Land Cruiser is the most likely of ANY vehicle to surpass 300,000 kilometers. Which, with our own odometer reading just over 250,000 kilometers, was a welcome relief. I think?
Now, as mentioned in preceding blog posts, while the concept of a “self-drive safari” is fairly common in certain regions of Africa (such as South Africa and even Namibia), it is almost unheard of in Tanzania. With the definition of "road" still very-much up for debate in the region, the majority of people opt to put their lives in the hands of another, typically a local Tanzanian with years of experience and knowledge of the GPS-concealed roads of the East African savannah. Not a 39-year-old kid from Texas who is “really good at the internet.” And while a brave few do tempt fate and go at it alone, they usually do not embark on such an adventure with two small children, especially when the only form of “safety” is a set of 1970s-inspired lap-only seat belts. However, as we have established, we aren’t ordinary travelers. And the blog demands satisfaction!
Departing from the dusty confines of Arusha, the 72-pocket khaki shirt capital of the world, it was mere minutes before we learned three, very valuable lessons that would undoubtedly aid our cause in the journey ahead:
Lessons in hand, and the boys already enthralled by the “bumpy ride,” we set off for the first destination of our journey, and by far the most enjoyable to articulate – Ngorongoro Crater.
Boasting one of the more unique volcanic-related superlatives, Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania is “the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera.” Formed over 2 million years ago when a Mount Kilimanjaro-sized volcano exploded and then collapsed upon itself, the aftermath produced a crater over 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles in size. Which as of today, is home to over 30,000 animals, spread across multiple ecosystems that comprise this relatively small plot of real estate. From dense forest to marshlands, salt water lakes to grassy plains, over 300 species call the bottom of this “inverted” volcano home. And about ½ million khaki-laden visitors, eager to explore this uniquely-located safari destination each and every year.
Now, before getting too far ahead of ourselves, we had a few obstacles in our path prior to visiting Africa's "eighth wonder of the world." And while the 5+ hour drive from Arusha ended up being the easiest stretch of road of our week long journey (i.e. teeth-gritting score = 3/10), our ability to actually pass through the entrance gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA for those acronym lovers), proved slightly more problematic. Since, with the majority of visitors to Ngorongoro utilizing a tour operator with a direct connection to the payment of system of NCA, as "independents," we had two, slightly-less-functional options at our discretion:
Nonetheless, after about an hour’s wait (luckily a fairly entertaining hour for our children captivated by the never-ending line of "roof-popped" Land Cruisers driving by), the credit card machine sprang back to life, just in time to pay the exorbitant “Mzungu Fee” of $1,400 – A 4-day total that, from our experience, goes to everything and anything in the park with the exception of road maintenance. Thus, with our bank accounts already dwindling, we set off for the next excessively-expensive aspect of our safari – Our 2-night stay at the Serena Lodge Ngorongoro.
While briefly alluded to in prior posts, yet necessary to reiterate for posterity’s sake, safari accommodation in Tanzania typically fall into 3 general categories:
As we had opted to slowly transition from lodging to glamping during the three destinations of our journey, our stay at Serena Lodge had everything one would expect from such an establishment:
Anyhow, now that we have appeased all the mothers of the audience with the “logistical details,” let’s continue on with the actual safari itself...
Waking-up at the ripe hour of 6AM on “crater day,” we embarked on our first 4x4 challenge of the trip – A 45-minute drive down the steep and prone-to-brake-failure "descent road" along the cliffs of the crater wall of Ngorongoro. A road that the NCA had once prohibited to all self-drive visitors, yet now, well, apparently it's fine? (especially after watching 20 minutes of YouTube videos, and determining the safety of your family on said road is more-or-less secure).
Anyhow, as most visitors typically depart for the crater after breakfast or are making the exhausting day trip in from Arusha, we were quite excited to have almost the entire crater to ourselves for a good part of the morning. Yet, as soon as we arrived to top of the descent road, we quickly discovered the reasoning behind what had been an abnormally quiet journey to its entrance. A reasoning clearly depicted on the fence blocking our path down into the crater – “Road Closed.” An hour of backtracking later, and we found ourselves in a nice queue of Land Cruisers, awaiting their turn down the newly-designated, ascent-but-now-also-descent road. A one-way path which quickly became the embodiment of "worrisome car smells," from burning clutches to failing brakes. And the occassional birder blocking traffic to photograph a chicken with an unnecessarily large camera lens.
Arriving at the floor of the crater, much to the relief of our engine & brakes, we were presented with an unbelievably surreal experience – An almost completely uninterrupted view of thousands of animals, as far as the eye can see, roaming about this formerly active volcano. A circular plot of land, once teeming with lava, now with life (poetic, I know). And not to be ignored, about a dozen Land Cruisers navigating the pothole and mud-filled roads that intertwined beneath the slowly-dissapearing shadow of the crater walls.
For the next 1/2 day, we drove aimelessly about the crater floor, awed by the sheer number of animals which have staked claim to this unbelievably unique patch of land. And occassionally, attempted to make our way over to a "collection" of 4x4s, despite the inordinate amount of time it took to go anywhere with the "roads" limiting speeds to a maximum of 30KM/Hr. And while the below photos will do better justice than my words, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with the notable exception of approximately 30-45 minutes whereby Finn decided he was “over it,” and then proceeded to garner the attention of all animals within “screaming distance,” forcing us to sacrifice his safety for peace-and-quiet (i.e. sitting on mom’s lap).
In hindsight, we did this to ourselves.
Next Stop: Ndutu – Home to the Great Migration
Onto the pics:
And even a few videos too!
PRIOR BLOG POSTS:
Year Abroad Intro:
• Welcome to our Newest Blog! Again!
• The Move - Dissected, Probed and Then Probed Some More
• The Voyage (Part 1) - If At First You Don't Succeed, Trying Again Won't Work Either
• The Voyage (Part 2) - The Layover to Rule All Other Layovers
• A Personal Life Update - Establishing Our Shallow Roots
A Guide to South Africa:
• How to be an Expat When You Aren't Technically an Expat
(Part 1 - Bank Accounts)
• How to be an Expat, When You Aren't Technically an Expat (Part 2 - Health Insurance)
• Load Shedding - Keeping the Lights Off in South Africa Since 2007
• 195 Ways to Fight a Pandemic - The South Africa Edition
• Halloween in South Africa - Playing Catch-Up Since 2016
• SnapScan - South Africa's Glimpse into America's Future
• Thanksgiving in South Africa - Where My Turkeys Be At?
• Life at the Epicenter of Omicron - A Different Type of Cancel Culture
• Playgrounds - The Starbucks of South Africa
• Cost of Living in South Africa - An Exploratory Journey of Everyday Expenses
• Namibia Roadtrip (1 of 3) - Driving a Shake Weight to Sossusvlei
• Namibia Roadtrip (2 of 3) - Searching for Souls in Swakopmund
• Namibia Roadtrip (3 of 3) - Getting our Safari on at Etosha National Park
• Weekend Getaway in Robertson - A Trip Down Pleasantville Lane
• Summer Holiday Trip (1 of 3) - Glamping Without the Glam in the Drakensberg Mountains
• Summer Holiday Trip (2 of 3) - The Historical Chronicles of Kruger National Park
• Summer Holiday Trip (3 of 3) - Searching for Whales and Spare Tires in the Overberg
• Visitors Round 1 - The Woodmans - An Expedited Exploration of Everything
• The Great Wildebeest Migration - 15 Years of Waiting Decided in 15 Minutes
• Ngorongoro Crater - A Pre-Migration Layover Inside an Inverted Volcano
• Ndutu - The Safari to Rule All Other Safaris
• Serengeti National Park - Seeking Out Simba at an Abandoned Pride Rock
• Zanzibar - The Island of Sugar, Spice and Most Things Nice
• Visitors Round 2 - Let's Ignore Our Sanity & Do All The Things
• Wild Coast - A Little Tatse of the O.G. South Africa
• Spring Break in September - Just as Strange as it Sounds
• A Day in the Life of a South African Expat - The Visual Edition
• A Wrinkle in Our Spare Time
• Our Final Week in South Africa - A Bittersweet Symphony of Bucket Lists
The Other Stuff:
• This is 40: The South Africa Version