Ngorongoro Conservation Area - Safari Part 2
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
From Tarangire, we’d head northwest to our middle stop: Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Most famous for Ngorongoro Crater (actually a “caldera,” but more on that later), the park includes a massive spread of wilderness, from jungle-like slopes to highlands that look like a Scottish backdrop from Braveheart.
Finding Mbege and More Mzungu Prices
We struck out on our (Chipp’s) mbege search in Arusha, but Salim said he’d figure something out for us. Figure something out he did.
As we drove from Tarangire to Ngorongoro, we passed through a cool little fishing village just off the banks of Lake Manyara. Apparently, Salim had some buddies who used to work as guides but now fished in the village, so he was pretty familiar with the area.
Turning off the main drag, we started winding along some dirt roads. Every block or so, Salim would lean out the window, have a quick conversation in Swahili, nod his head, then continue on our journey. We eventually found a guy who seemed to know where to go, and Salim slowly followed along as he guided us into a big courtyard. Not understanding Swahili, we definitely were in the along-for-the-ride category.
When we parked in the courtyard, Salim turned around with a smile and said to Chipp: “Follow this guy – he’ll get you some mbege.” Success!
What ensued was an extremely unique “brewery” tour – old ladies hand turning mash over a fire, bottles of banana wine, and finally, a communal pot of mbege. The closest way to describe it is: texture like horchata, taste like banana-flavored oatmeal, and alcohol like a strong beer. And, very much a social tradition, mbege’s often shared in a communal jug, with people taking a long swig then passing it around the circle. Big smile on his face, Chipp enjoyed every second of this experience.
Wrapping up, Salim translated an offer: did we want to buy a few bottles of banana wine, too? As the saying goes, is the Pope Catholic? You bet – we’ll take three for the drive.
Next, the price negotiations. With no idea how much we owed – but pretty sure there’d be some more mzungu pricing – Chipp asked Salim. What followed was a couple minute back-and-forth negotiation, with Salim clearly not wanting to translate for us how much this guy was asking for the wine and mbege “tour.” Eventually, we heard English break into the conversation, with Salim telling our booze entrepreneur: “You tell them.”
Local businessman: “30,000 shillings.”
Chipp, laughing: “Here’s 20,000, man.” (Still exorbitant, but worth every penny).
Local businessman, big smile on his face: “Thanks!”
So yeah, we paid far more than a local would have, but it was certainly worth it to us (that is, to Chipp). True arm’s length transaction!
As our new friend walked away, we saw him give 10,000 shillings to the ladies making the wine, and put another 10,000 in his pocket. Broker’s fee!
Up the Rift and Into the Highlands
Leaving this village (with a bottle of banana wine now open), we started driving into what looked like an absolutely impenetrable green wall rising out of the jungle. Definitely another example of something-we’ve-only-read-about-in-textbooks, we were approaching the Gregory Rift Escarpment, part of the Great Rift Valley cutting from north to south through the entire continent.
Pretty cool experience – mbege- and wine-induced buzz, windows open, and zig-zagging our way up the escarpment’s steep ascent. Well, the window thing only lasted briefly. Leaving the village and beginning this climb, we entered baboon territory. They were everywhere – on rocks overlooking the road, in trees, and right in the middle of the road. And, if you’ve never seen a baboon’s teeth – absolute daggers – they’re not things you want sinking into you.
Salim: “Windows up!”
Turns out, when it comes to jumping into the car windows of unsuspecting passers-by, baboons are even worse than monkeys – plus they can rip your face off… We quickly rolled up the windows.
Marera Valley Lodge and [Many] Drinks with Ze Germans
It’s a long drive from Tarangire to Ngorongoro. Rather than pushing straight through, we stopped for a night an hour or so from the entrance. Awesome decision.
Karatu is the final town before reaching the park, so it’s a common stopover point for people en route to Ngorongoro and Serengti. The place where we stayed – Marera Valley Lodge – was beautiful. Tucked into the green hills atop the escarpment, you could feel the difference in the air – much cooler here than in the lowlands we’d just left.
The lodge consisted of 18 private cottages surrounding a pool and manicured lawns, with a separate dining area and bar. And, with a couple bottles of banana wine in the system, jumping into that frigid pool hit the spot (a decision that fell into Jenna’s I-like-that-for-you category of Chipp behavior).
Thoroughly refreshed after the dip, Chipp bumped into a German couple we’d met briefly at Hotel Venus in Arusha. As the team social chair, this led to a “can I buy you a beer?” offer, which in turn led to several beers before dinner, and ultimately to a lot of drinks at dinner.
Our new friends were in Tanzania on their honeymoon, which justified the celebratory evening even more (though who needs excuses?). Riot of a night, and great getting to hear their stories. The guy – Enrico – had served in the German military while mandatory service still existed. He’d been stationed at Hohenfels, the same base outside Nuremberg where Chipp trained for a month before deploying to Afghanistan – small world.
Maasai “Family Planning”
With some mildly ringing heads, we woke up for an early start the next morning. Looking back, we’d have definitely stayed a few nights at Marera – and not just due to our hangovers. It really was an incredible spot. But, we had a long drive ahead of us and needed to get on the road.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area is named after the Ngorongoro Crater, the most iconic and popular site in the park. Technically a “caldera,” it was formed by a volcano implosion millions of years ago (apparently craters are formed by volcano explosions – good bar trivia). And, it’s the largest intact one in the world, creating a strange ecosystem of all sorts of animals living in extremely close proximity – who wouldn’t otherwise do so. For tourists, this makes for a quick and guaranteed way to see all sorts of game in a relatively small area.
But, the broader conservation area is absolutely massive, with plenty of other places to see if you have the time – which we fortunately did. So, our first day there, we’d bypass the caldera and drive to the far northeast corner for a “walking safari.”
After entering the park, we skirted the rim of the crater, driving through lush, jungle greenery. In a crazy example of microclimates, we drove over a small ridge and found ourselves in completely different terrain – what can best be described as the Scottish Highlands. But, rather than Scottish cottages, the rolling grasslands were dotted with the circular, thatched roofs of Maasai villages – and what seemed like millions of goats and cattle.
As a conservation area, human development is generally prohibited throughout Ngorongoro. But, the Tanzanian government makes an exception for the Maasai people. An indigenous tribe of the area, the Maasai have protected status throughout the country, and they’re allowed to live their (largely) traditional lives in these conservation areas.
We say largely traditional lives, because some noticeable exceptions exist. Traditional huts? Check. Livelihood centered around livestock? Check. Traditional robes and garments? Check. Solar panels, satellite dishes, and cell phones? Also check. You definitely experience some cognitive dissonance seeing a Maasai villager herding goats in his traditional robes – chatting on a cell phone.
But, you can’t argue against the convenience of some modern technology. Previously, if a family wanted to have a wedding or other party, they’d send a child off to spend days – if not weeks – walking from village to village inviting people. Now, this can be done with a few phone calls.
Speaking of technology, we noticed something odd driving through herds of goat. Every few animals had what looked like a rubber shield hanging down from their stomachs. With a smile on his face, Salim described these devices as “Maasai family planning.” It clicked for us pretty quickly – these shields prevent the male goats from, well, mountingtheir female counterparts – cost effective way to control the size of your herd!
Armed Rangers and a Descent into Empekaai Crater
As explained, the majority of our time on safari would entail game drives, viewing animals from the relative safety of a jeep. Walking through the bush poses too much risk. But, you could do it – just with a few precautions.
Empekaai Crater – much smaller than the more famous Ngorongoro – is located in the far northeast of the conservation area. Most tourists don’t see it due to A) this distance, and B) its inaccessibility. Whereas you can drive into Ngorongoro, you need to descend by foot to the bottom of Empekaai to see its incredible volcanic lake. This sounded like it’d be an awesome experience, so Jenna added it to our itinerary during her coordination with Bright African.
To make it happen, we had to pick up an armed game ranger. Employed by the national government, these rangers – similar to US Park Rangers – are an unbelievable wealth of knowledge and experience. Our ranger, Michael, couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 – but what an absolute professional.
While Salim remained up on the crater’s rim, Michael – AK-47 slung over his shoulder in case of charging buffalo – guided us on the hour-ish descent to the base of the crater. It seemed like every ten steps, he’d stop and point out another plant, explaining how it was used by the Maasai people. Toothbrushes, remedies for indigestion and mild forms of cancer, pain killers, wound poultices – veritable pharmacy of plants!
Despite knowing we’d also need to walk up the crater wall, the view at the bottom was undoubtedly worth it – flamingos as far as you could see along the shores of this gorgeous lake. And, as Chipp learned, if any animal can compete with cats for Jenna’s heart, it’s flamingos!
Serena Safari Lodge - Better than Afghanistan
Continuing the theme of outstanding lodges, we’d spend two nights at the Serena Safari Lodge – a great spot perched on the Ngorongoro rim.
Neither of us had heard of Serena before, but a plaque on the wall referred to Aga Khan, a clearly South Asian name. Curiosity piqued, we did some research on the chain. Owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (a rabbit hole’s worth of background reading there), Serena Hotels owns luxury lodges throughout Africa and South Asia.
Sipping delicious coffee on our room’s balcony, with panoramic views into the caldera, it was hard not to smile – far nicer spending time here than the Kabul Serena Hotel!
Highlights from a Driving Descent into Ngorongoro
Our second day in Ngorongoro, we had breakfast at Serena then headed out for a day down in the caldera. It’s difficult to put into words how fascinating it is seeing so many different animals in such close proximity. Best description of Ngorongoro? The real-world embodiment of Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom” painting (that is, until hunting time begins). Here are a few of the highlights:
Lion mating: When lions mate, it’s a serious event. A lion and lioness will break away from the pride for a couple days, “consummating the relationship” every 15 minutes or so. After one round, the lion and lioness will both pass out. When ready again, the lioness will stand up and saunter over to the lion, waving her tail and pacing back and forth. For the lion, this is the sign – time for the next round!
Stalking hyenas: If we took one animal fact from our entire safari, it’s that hyenas are absolutely terrifying. They’ll stalk prey for days on end, eventually isolating the weak or injured from a group. That’s when they pounce, ripping a carcass to shreds and leaving next to nothing behind. We slowly followed a pack of a dozen-ish hyenas shadowing a herd of cape buffalo. The hyenas won’t attack the buffalo when together. Instead, they’ll dart in and rip at the legs of the outliers. With a broken leg, a buffalo can’t keep pace with the herd. Eventually, these wounded ones get left behind, as the rest of the must continue on to new grazing lands. Lunchtime for the hyenas.
Newborn gazelles: What can we say? A newborn gazelle is basically the most adorable thing in the world. Watching these little guys stumble along on their too-long-for-their-young-lack-of-coordination legs, falling every few steps, is a pulled-right-from-Disney experience. Fortunately, we didn’t see the alternative pulled-from-a-nightmare experience – when the hyenas find one of these babies.
If Nature Makes Sense, Don’t Change It
After a full day in the caldera, we began the steep ascent. Following this trail seemingly carved directly out of the steep wall, it was hard to picture how any civil engineers could’ve planned the route. Voicing this thought, Salim explained its origins.
The trail was not planned by an engineer. It had existed for thousands of years, gradually carved out by elephants moving to and from other feeding grounds. Recognizing the clear logic of nature, Tanzanian engineers embraced the status quo. Rather than trying to create something from scratch, they simply paved this elephant trail, making it suitable – though still terrifyingly steep and narrow – for jeeps.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!