BLOG Pt3 : Can I have air with my dust please?


16 July 2013.

Sightseeing the most iconic and world famous spots in Tanzania, but also enduring a bone jarring and nerve racking ride through rain forests, a crater and a semi desert. And eating a LOT of dust.

Lake Manyara Wildlife Lodge at sunrise

This day was the sting in the tail, all emanating from our late arrival at Lake Manyara the previous evening. We started early at 7am, with a relaxing (in hindsight too relaxed) drive through Lake Manyara National Park in overcast conditions. It was the first game we had seen on the trip so we stopped for everything. Baboons, birds, trees, zebras and even vultures. I’m not complaining, it WAS lovely. A large area of the park is covered by beautiful indigenous forests, teeming with life. We also saw miniature elephants, compared to our Kruger Park variant. A lot of jokes were made about catching one for a pet. The idea wasn’t that far-fetched. The park’s claim to fame though is its small population of tree climbing lions, but unfortunately we weren’t destined to see them this time around.

Lake Manyara National Park

At 10am we made our way to Ngorongoro Crater. It’s a scenic 35km drive to the crater’s gate, all the time climbing the crater’s outside rim. We checked into the park and were then treated to a magnificent dense rain forest, all the while climbing higher. One drawback of the crater is that it’s a one way in and one way out, so for this journey we had to start at the eastern point of the crater, circumvent it on the southern rim and enter on the western side. We’d made our way through the crater and then exit on the eastern rim, where we’d again have to circumvent the southern rim and exit at the western side on the way to Ndutu. If that sounds laborious and unnecessary it’s because it IS. Keep in mind the crater is approximately 35 x 35km.

Our route from Lake Manyara to The Gumeti river marked in red.

The road on the southern rim is narrow and winding with a lot of traffic, but this did not deter our racing driver and he threw caution to the wind. Apparently he was also in a hurry. What amazed me was how the landscape continuously changed. Suddenly we were at a look-out point on the south eastern rim. The vista seemed to pull you into the void, as the rim is about 2000ft above the caldera’s floor. Mind blown. The scene was so vast that it’s difficult to capture it on camera. The answer….panorama. While I took the 18 portrait photos for the dramatic panorama I wished that there weren’t other people or vehicles around me as the noise somewhat spoiled this awe-inspiring view. I also would have liked to stay longer, but alas we had to move on.

Ngorongoro Crater.

A slight concern the previous day had now developed into full blown paranoia…my camera and lenses were at war with the dust and jolting vehicle. I wasn’t prepared for this onslaught and tried to improvise by covering my gear with the t-shirt I was wearing, but it still helped little for the vibration from the road. Lenses aren’t made for shaking. We were shaken and stirred to breaking point by the unrelenting road. A bit later we entered the crater at the western entry point. The Masai were everywhere. It made for good photos, but I couldn’t help to feel that their cattle were slowly choking the life out of the crater. Where we found them there wasn’t any grass left. Not even the roots. It is quite amazing to think though that they enter this crater which swarms with wildlife; lions and leopards included.

Masai entering the crater over the western rim.

Soon we were at the crater floor and made our way first eastwards before turning north. There was wildlife everywhere. A sobering fact…no white rhinos are left in the crater. The black rhino population stood on 17 at the time of our visit. Zebra and wildebeest are as common as impala in the Kruger park and they’re tame. We had beautiful Secretary Bird sightings and saw a full black mane lion about 150 meters from the vehicle. Unfortunately he was just too far for a competition winning photo, as the wind was blowing through his impressive mane. On the northern side we came upon a pride of lions, probably 7 or 8 strong, including a male. I couldn’t help but think that these very same lions were probably more famous than Steve Irwin himself as there is so much footage on National Geographic and Discovery of the Ngorongoro lions. A sad fact is that these lions are a dying breed. Due to other lions not being able to enter the crater and introduce with them new genes, these crater lions are inadvertently in bred, which makes them susceptible to disease and death. An old lioness at one stage lay right beside and under our vehicle, and if I wanted to be lion lunch I could have patted her on the head. Nice little kitty.

Wild, but not in the wilderness.

We exited the crater and then started to make the arduous and life threatening journey along the southern rim to the western exit. Maybe spurred on by the setting sun and the knowledge that we were still a long way from Ndutu, our driver took safari rally to the next level. On more than one occasion did he overtake on a blind height, into the sun and with zero visibility, due to the dust. The only comparison I can think of is to fly in clouds… in a canyon… Sooner, rather than later your luck will run out. Now it’s funny, but at the time our one companion (who seemed quite relaxed given the circumstances, likely due to his steady consumption of beer since a Caravan passed overhead at Lake Manyara in the morning) joked that the driver was counting buses…”If one passed it might be another good five minutes before the next one comes along”. A bit like Russian Roulette. And then the accident waiting to happen nearly happened…another overtaking manoeuver on a blind corner. To put it mildly, our cruiser was a cow off the blocks, so overtaking took some doing, even at 60 km/h. As we were creeping and scraping past another cruiser, a white (I’ll never forget the colour, because I could see the white of the oncoming driver’s bulging eyes) land rover careened down on us from the front. Three vehicles abreast would NOT fit on this road. We were in the middle. Even with the choice, our driver wouldn’t budge an inch, as he was a man who commanded respect on the road. On the left was a vertical drop-off, so the ditch it was then for the oncoming driver. The look on his passengers’ faces as we passed them was priceless. We’ve been hardened by an hour’s hair-raising and nerve shattering drive. They hadn’t.

The view towards the west from Ngorongoro crater.

Off the crater the terrain became flat and open, devoid of trees. The road didn’t improve, in fact it only got worse. It’s hard to describe just how hard that drive was. I wish now that I took some video footage, but at the time I was only thinking of preservation. Due to the increased speed, dust seeped into the vehicle from every nook and cranny. At one stage it even looked as though it was being pumped into the vehicle, so furious was the infiltration. Closing the top and windows didn’t help, all we accomplished was suffocation by dust.

A good while later we then turned off from the main road towards Ndutu Lodge. Our tame racing driver now had the sweet smell of dinner in his nostrils and we started to fly on the narrow trail road. A unison shout from 6 exasperated passengers got him to stop for a pack of hyenas, with a pup observing us with curiosity from the safety of the den’s entrance. At last we made it to Ndutu Lodge as the sun was setting. We had been driving since 7am that morning. It had been one hell of a day.

A rare and precious sighting.

As we opened the back door of our cruiser, we had to come to terms with the fact that our luggage looked worse for wear than us. The dust had even seeped into the bags and suitcases. That morning I had sported grey shorts and a white t-shirt. At Ndutu I resembled a carrot. The urge for a warm shower was overwhelming. But first I had to attend a quick briefing on the evening’s proceedings and capture a few shots of the setting sun behind Ndutu’s iconic acacias.

Ndutu Lodge

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a long rant, but it’s everything but. It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. It was an incredible experience, with so many memorable moments, that in time it will certainly be my lasting memory of the whole trip.

As beautiful as the Ngorongoro crater was, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. Yes, there were a lot of animals in it, but it felt somewhat over-commercialised and like an oversized natural zoo. It seemed to lack mystique. For me it comes over more special on television than in real life. Maybe it would be different if you could spend more time in the crater, follow the animals and experience their everyday struggles and routine.

The world was a much better place to be on after the shower. We convened for drinks before dinner and an urgent request was made for a charter plane to take us back to Arusha, once we’ve reached the furthest point on our journey into the Serengeti. There is only one road that leads from Arusha to the Grumeti river, where we were going, in the north-western Serengeti. This meant that we were supposed to drive back all the way from there to Arusha, in one soul and gut destroying journey of 8-9 hours. After this day’s experience no one was up for the challenge or torture.

When I planned the trip I identified the return journey day to be the toughest day of the whole trip, but I had no idea that the road was in such a state, neither was I warned. In either case, from a personal point of view, if my camera gear got damaged by the road it would cost me more than whatever the charter ticket was, so I too was definitely keen on rather flying back to Arusha. Some people might point out here that one’s life is also a consideration. Ndutu was kind enough to let me phone Karen from their office, and I instructed her to find us a quote to charter 24 passengers to Arusha. She was very understanding and got on it straight away. Bless her kind soul.

Genet at Ndutu.

During a delicious and well prepared dinner (in the middle of literally nowhere!), 3 genets joined us in the dining hall. They are beautiful felines and it was great to see them up close and personal. The accommodation at Ndutu is relatively basic, but I think it suits the surroundings perfectly. I was slightly disappointed that we couldn’t stay there for longer. The migration’s calves are usually born at Ndutu, so at the right time of the year it’s the place to be in the Serengeti.

Sleep came instantly as my eyelids closed. The next day we would move northwards through the Serengeti to the Grumeti river.

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