Sunday 5 August

Crossing the Maasai Steppe

I sleep reasonably well on and off – the double-bed experience is not too traumatic and we manage to keep to our respective sides of the bed. There is hot water for the shower, and breakfast, including fresh fruit, cereal, and scrambled eggs, on a raised wooden terrace in a garden of tropical shrubs and trees.

Nimrod meets us as arranged with the Land Cruiser at 8 am and drives us first to a town-centre hotel opposite the bus station where we can change some money.

The road out of Arusha is my very picture of a typical African street – people, animals, carts, vehicles… We pass coffee plantations, sightly ragged low bushes of dark leaves arranged in rows. Further out the landscape becomes drier.

(magnify) Lake Manyara

After a few hours we see ahead an escarpment and the landscape becomes greener again. The road takes us up several switchbacks and then we park in a layby for a magnificent view out over Lake Manyara.

Continuing on we climb further through lush green vegetation as we approach Ngorongoro. We stop at the park entrance and watch baboons mingle with the tourists while Nimrod goes into the office to sort out our paperwork. After what seems like an age he emerges brandishing the necessary permits. We leave the crowds and diesel fumes behind as we climb a rough road between high green vegetation towards the caldera rim.

(magnify) The Ngorongoro Crater

From the top we can see down both sides. To our left are the tree-covered slopes leading back to the park entrance, and right is the crater itself, the ground dappled by cloud shadows. In the centre is a large lake, and just visible in the haze are groups of dots that might be beasties.

We drive some way around the crater rim, past a posh hotel. At the gate where the road starts to descend into the crater, we come upon a South African couple whose car has broken down with a split hydraulic line from the power steering. A park ranger is taking a look, but Nimrod steps in and does a neat repair for them. Very reassuring to know that our driver is well-versed in on-the-road repairs.

We descend a dusty and rough road. There are large numbers of zebras and wildebeest roaming in clusters, some very close to the road and our vehicle. Nimrod points out to us thompson’s gazelle, warthogs, and crested storks. We approach the lake and see flamingoes, and a large hippo standing sideways on, presumably just enjoying the sun on its back now that the cloud has largely cleared away.

Left: (magnify) Wildebeest
Right: (magnify) Wildebeest and zebra
Left: (magnify) Hippopotamus
Right: (magnify) Grazing zebra and wildebeest
Left: (magnify) Thompson’s gazelle
Right: Hyena

There are also buffalo, ostrich, a hyena that walks nonchelantly past our vehicle, and a jackel visiting the lake for a drink.

Nimrod finds us a spot near some water where we park up to eat our packed lunches. We are right in the middle of a herd of zebra and wildebeest, who completely ignore us. It is a unique experience to be sitting here in the middle of a herd of such wild animals, so close.

(magnify) Lion

After lunch we continue driving across the crater. A large group of safari vehicles have clustered around near to the river, a sure sign that lions must be nearby. There are three males and five or six females, some more easily visible than others. One of the lionesses rolls on her back and lazily stretches her paws upwards. A male watches a bird in an adjacent tree with mild interest.

We exit the crater on the opposite side for the road to Empakai. It is a rough, bumpy and dusty track, but Nimrod warns us that the road we will be taking back from Natron in a few days time is worse. He is less sure as we proceed further – the road continues to deteriorate, with deep irregular ruts and thick clouds of dust particles that cascade down the outside of the windows. Presently Nimrod conceeds that this is now worse than the Natron road.

Left: The road gets worse… (photo: RS)
Right: (magnify) Our driver Nimrod (photo: RS)

The campsite is next to the track, perched on the 20 metre wide crater rim. Our Maasai guide is Francis, assisted by Oben and Ryan. We are going to be well looked after. We have camp beds, sheets, and blankets inside our spacious dome tent, and a chemical sit-down toilet just outside the camp.

Our campsite

Empakai camp is 3500 m or so up overlooking the crater of Empakai, which has a salt lake in the centre. We are the only tourists here. There is a cook and about six porters – they all look the same! Really it is quite luxurious – camp beds, chairs, and a table! We’ve not had dinner but it is getting cooked and the temperature is starting to drop. It might get quite cold tonight.

(magnify) Empakai Crater

We had an amusing misunderstanding with Ryan while dinner was cooking. I was asking if Tanzania is on the equator and he thought I was asking about craters in Tanzania! So we got a full explanation of Ngorongoro and Empakai!