Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
After a nice uneventful stay in Dar Es Salaam, Tamara and I decided we should torture ourselves and take an 11 hour bus ride across the country to Arusha for our safari to Ngorongoro Crater. Although the bus ride was not as bad as the one from Lamu to Mombasa in Kenya, I did end up with only 1 flip flop at the end of it and a bruised spine from being jostled around in the back of the bus. But all uncomfortable-ness aside, the views along the way were worth it! The landscape in the interior of Tanzania is so different from the coast – there were huge mountain ranges with red soil peaking out through the palm, coconut and bobao trees. There were also trees with huge trunks that reminded me of the Avatar mother tree (continuing on with the movie references, I think there’s been one in every blog post so far!). There were farms all along the roads surrounded by tiny mud huts and there were even farms high up on the mountain faces! What an ordeal for farmers to hike up and down everyday to tend to their crops. Other than looking out the window, we passed the time by watching the religious soap operas, religious movies and religious music videos on the bus TV. It was horrible acting but the drama was awesome (love triangles intermingled with possessed ex-boyfriends who used black magic and summoned the devil to put hexes on rival suitors). We stopped at a rest stop half way through and everyone jumped out to line up for, of course, fried chicken and fries. Tamara was seriously tempted to try it until we saw the chickens in the BBQ. First of all, she said they looked like human torsos and secondly, there’s no bathroom on the bus. The second rest stop, to our amusement, was just the side of the road and half of the bus got off together, walked into the bush together and peed together.
We finally arrived in Arusha – the safari capital of Tanzania – and was greeted by our safari guide who then dropped us off at a nice budget hotel called Flamingo Hotel. It’s in a dodgier part of town but the staff were so helpful and even walked us to the Indian restaurant 5 minutes away that we wanted to try. On the way back, we asked the restaurant to have someone walk us back for a small fee (hotel staff said it wasn’t safe walking alone at night) and they found us this old man with a giant stick. He looked like the sort of person we would need protection from, not our chaperone for the walk home. But he ended up being super friendly and even made sure we got in the front door OK.
The next morning, our safari guide, Becka, drove us out to Arusha National Park to go for a walking safari. Becka is super nice and friendly and was not annoyed by our many questions ranging from “how did you meet your girlfriend?” to “how many babies does a giraffe have?”. At Arusha National Park, we first drove around and immediately saw herds of giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and warthogs. Apparently, warthogs and buffaloes are usually found together because they have a symbiotic relationship. Buffaloes can’t hear that well so they depend on warthogs to listen for predators and in return, when warthogs hear a predator approaching, they run into the middle of a buffalo herd and the buffaloes use their size to protect the warthogs. Isn’t that cool? Also, there’s only 1 alpha male in a herd of buffaloes and younger males constantly challenge the alpha since only the alpha breeds with the females in the pack. Player!
We drove along the park and the landscape was so different to anything we saw in Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. There was actually a jungle! There were huge trees and so much undergrowth that we couldn’t see the ground. Since it was early in the morning, mist covered the canopy of the jungle and the green tip of nearby Mount Meru. We finally met our walking safari park ranger, Mbotu and he had on the most awesome park ranger outfit! He wore a forest green park ranger shirt and trousers, a forest green beret tipped on the side of his head, rubber boots, had a thick mustache and to top it all off, had a wooden rifle slung over his shoulder. Immediately I asked him if he had ever shot anything with his rifle and he said a couple of buffalo and an elephant! Apparently buffaloes become unstable if they’re alone because they aren’t as confident as they would be in a herd so they may charge at you. Also, if you are faced with an angry elephant, you should either find a large tree to climb up (one that is strong enough that the elephant can’t push it over) or run in a zig-zag because elephants smell with their trunks so they may lose your scent. We walked for about 50 meters across a small stream and was immediately face to face with a herd of giraffes! They were so friendly that we could walk within 10m of them and they wouldn’t move. Interesting facts about giraffes (that Mbotu told us in his commanding manner), giraffes are pregnant for 16 months and baby giraffes are born weighing up to 1.5 tons! Also, they can suckle from any mother – how liberal of them! We walked a bit more and then Mbotu showed us the Sodom Apple plant. Maasai use the leaves to numb toothaches and wean babies off breast milk. It tastes so bad that mothers rub it on their nipples and the babies hate it so much they never go back. Mbotu then asked us how we wean babies in Canada and to us, it seemed simple – make them take the bottle – but to them, they couldn’t comprehend how we could just do that. Maasai also use the plant to ward off maggots from their cowhide beds because if they don’t, the larvae can burrow into their babies’ soft skin – sick!
While we were walking, we saw piles of dung scattered all along the ground – some small pebbles, some huge mounds (again being immature, Tamara and I giggled at every single one of them). Mbotu explained to us that the small pebble dung was from an animal called a dik-dik (again giggles from us). He asked us “do you know what a dik-dik is? did you see any in Kenya?” and at this point, I couldn’t keep it in anymore and just burst out laughing. All immature-ness aside, dik-diks are small deer-like animals the size of rabbits and they are very territorial. They poop along their territory to mark it and when they have a offspring and it’s time for them to mate, they smell other dik-dik families’ poop in the area to see if that family has a boy or girl. If it matches, they place their respective offspring at the boundary of their territory and let them mate. Kinda like arranged marriage for animals! We then walked to a waterfall on the side of Mount Meru and Mbotu explained to us the fever tree. It’s called a fever tree because when the mzungus (whites) first arrived in Africa, they set up camp near the rivers under these trees (since the trees mostly grow by water supplies) and they contracted malaria from the mostquitoes but blamed the trees, hence fever trees. Mbotu made a corny joke and said that they should actually be called clever trees because when they are small, they have thorns on their branches to prevent animals from eating them and when they grow larger, their trunks are rough and bumpy so animals can’t tear off it’s bark for water. Another interesting tree (who would’ve thought trees would be interesting!) is the fig tree. It’s a parasite tree that wraps it’s roots around a host tree until it dies and then takes it’s place.
We said good-bye to Mbotu, took some pictures (I asked if I could hold his rifle!) and then drove to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. Along the way, we passed by small towns and for some reason, there were towns with 20 male hair salons! At the gate to the Conservation Area, there were a bunch of baboons trying to open car windows to get food. One tried to get into our jeep and Tamara valiantly tried to scare it off (as we’d seen other people do with success) but this time, the baboon ran after her! She screamed while I started laughing (still laughing writing this) and a ranger came and chased the baboon away. After that terrifying attack (I really don’t like animals with fingers!), we drove to the rim of the crater 2400m above sea level. The view was breathtaking – the crater is massive and the clouds reflecting on the small lakes below was so peaceful. We drove to our lodge and around a turn, we saw a pride of lions drinking water from a puddle on the side of the road! It was amazing and so surprising to see! After the nice welcome from the lions, we arrived at our lodge and watched the sun set behind the crater rim. It was beautiful – streaks of orange, pink and purple in the sky – and when the sun finally set, we could see a crazy lightning storm beyond the rim.
In the morning, we woke up super early for our game drive. On the 60m descent down into the crater floor, it was so misty and foggy outside that we couldn’t see more than 10ft ahead. There was dew on everything and so cloudy – very eerie! All I could see were silouettes of fever trees in the mist shrouded by fog. We stopped at a checkpoint and out of nowhere, Maasai boys showed up selling their wares. It was like a zombie movie! Once we got down to the crater floor, the view was even more beautiful than from the rim. All around us was the crater rim and there was fog slipping over the rim like beer foam over a pint glass. And since we were below the clouds, the air was so crisp and refreshing! The landscape was different as well – no more jungles – and instead, there were plains, small lakes and hills. The cloud hanging over allowed the sunlight to peak out and cast rays of light on the crater floor. There were herds of zebras and wildebeest (I’m talking hundreds of them). Wildebeest are kinda ugly with long brown beards, hunchbacks and weird strides. We also saw a bunch of male African elephants with huge, long tusks (at least 3 ft long) and they looked so sharp! They oddly rubbed themselves all over with mud – maybe some sort of weird facial or exfoliating regiment? At the small lakes, there were thousands of pink flamingos intermingled with animals drinking water. We also saw a pride of lions (2 males, 2 females) by the side of the road – they were bigger than the ones we saw in Kenya but just as lazy and were just sleeping and yawning. Not far away were hyenas looking for bones to hide in the water (apparently this way, they can eat the bones at a later time).
So as Mike (and Tamara now) know, I have a small bladder and need frequent bathroom breaks. Well this morning’s tea mixed with the cold, bumpy ride standing in the jeep did not help so by hour 3 of the game drive, I had to pee. Badly. There were no toilets for miles in either direction so Becka stopped at the side of the road and I used the Crater as my own personal bathroom. There was just something so serene about being in the open, at the bottom of an ancient crater, in Africa, with the sun shining down on me, in a field dotted with yellow flowers, being surrounded by wild animals. Tamara was laughing at me the entire time and I’m pretty sure Becka was mortified. I’m confident that I mooned a bunch of zebras but in the end, who else can say that they’ve left their mark on Ngorongoro Crater? Thank god we stopped where we did because not even 50m down the road, we saw a cheetah in the grass! She was just chilling there, not hidden or anything, mewing for her babies. The markings on her face and body were so vivid and contrasting – I especially like the tear drop markings on her face.
After the game drive, we drove back up and over the rim and started our journey back to Arusha. Along the way, we saw a car filled with bananas! They were everywhere – in the backseat, sticking out of the trunk, piled high on the roof! I just hope those cheeky baboons don’t get near that car! Along the drive back to Arusha, we saw people all along the road appear out of nowhere. There was no trace of civilization for miles so they must have walked far! There were Maasai tending to their herds and barefoot school children walking to and from school. We also had some excitement in the car when a huge bee hit me on the face and an even bigger wasp jumped into Tamara’s lap (that’s twice in 24 hours that’s she’s been attacked by animals – only in Africa!). Back in Arusha, we said goodbye to Becka and boarded the bus from hell back to Dar Es Salaam. The upside to the terrible ride was that we saw Mount Kilimanjaro! Its peaks are covered in snow and the ridge is so long, you have to turn your head all around just to take it all in! It really is majestic and massive – I can’t even imagine how all those people climb it! A peculiar observation we saw was the variety of wares that men would sell at the side of the road when buses/cars stopped. We saw: sunglasses men, watch men, boiled eggs men, cashew nut men, cookies/candies/chips men, produce/fruit men, poster men, pants men, tie men, religious painting men, towel men, car accessories men, ice cream men, newspaper men, bootleg DVDs from China men, sandals men, plastic buckets men and my personal favourite, small grandfather clocks men.
Back in Dar, we treated ourselves to some luxury and stayed in a hotel! Our bodies may be broken, face wind-burnt and hair looking like a rat’s nest but in the end, it was all worth it!