By John L. Fuhring
By late afternoon we had left Olduvai behind us and were heading east toward Ngorongoro. It was way too late in the afternoon to descend into the crater, so we made our way to our campground on the rim. I noticed a whole spectrum of tourist facilities up there on the rim. There were very deluxe and pricey lodges at the far end of the spectrum and then there was our camp at the other extreme. The better places even had electricity and we could see their lights in the distance after dark. One rather interesting resort looked even more like the "native village" scene in the original King Kong movie than did the place I mentioned earlier.
As we pulled up to the campground, I noticed that there were guys in army fatigue uniforms and heavily armed with AK47 assault rifles. These guys closely checked our guide's papers and later I noticed them patrolling the area at night. I assumed they were Park Police and they were there to make sure the very rare Crater Rhino's were protected, the tourists didn't get molested by bandits and that the camping fees got collected. I recalled a conversation I had had with Jan earlier regarding really ruthless bandits that sneak in from the lawless country of Somalia. I was a little uneasy that we had to be guarded in this way. On the other hand, these guys looked like they could handle most any situation and their AK's had all the finish worn off them from long use. These guys were your genuine bad asses and Los Banditos probably knew better than to mess with them.
We were camping at the Simba "B" site. It was a beautiful place really. At a short distance from the camp, the ground rapidly sloped down so we had an unobstructed view of the Crater and the topography beyond. To the north of us we could see the other camps and the resort buildings off in the distance. It really looked nice. After two days of going grubby in the Serengeti I was very pleased to notice that there were two large washroom buildings. I really wanted to take a shower in the worst way and needed to change my clothes. Well, as it turned out, yes, I took a shower all right and yes, I took it in the worst way too.
After getting my tent up and some of my stuff unpacked, I grabbed some clean clothes, my towel and my soap and made a beeline for the first washroom. Nothing in the place worked except for a little trickle in a couple of the sinks. What a wreck, the fixtures were even more broken up than before. I took my stuff and myself over to the twin washroom and found it had several women in it. What's more, the washroom had two showers that still sort of worked. They were really dirty - even worse than at Twiga, but any kind of a working shower was good enough for me. I went into one somebody said worked and took off my clothes. Oh shit, there was no handle on the valve. I had to put some clothes back on, walk to the other end and ask the occupant of the other shower to throw the handle out to me. Having done that, I again got undressed and turned on the valve until a trickle of water started flowing.
Before I go on, I should mention that we were above 7,000 feet and, although only three degrees from the equator, it was cold out - like in the lower 60's (if that warm). Anyway, back to the shower.
I was hoping somebody had made a fire under a boiler somewhere, but such was not the case and the water was ice cold. I've always hated ice cold showers, but, over the years, I've developed a certain technique for surviving them. Still, it's really hard to force yourself under that water for the initial soaking. I finally got myself under the trickle and proceeded to get moist. Oh God it was cold!! Quickly exiting, I soaped myself with the absolute minimum of soap so that rinsing wouldn't be protracted more than necessary. Finally, back in the ice water to rinse off. Oh what misery, but it felt soooo good once I'd toweled off and was clean again. Let's face it, bathing isn't absolutely necessary while on safari, but it does make you feel good.
For the last time I bitterly regretted not having Jan's bucket shower. The next best thing would have been a "Sun Shower." I made up my mind that I will never, but never go on safari again without a sun shower. I'm sure you know what I'm referring to, they're those black plastic bags with a little tube and a sprinkler on the end. They roll up into almost nothing, they weigh only a few ounces and they cost almost nothing. If I would have had one, I would have showered every day and the showers would have been much more pleasant. Let's face it, you just can't trust the plumbing in third world campgrounds.
The sun quickly set in the west, the temperature quickly dropped and the wind started blowing. It was cold. I had a windproof jacket with a hood and I was quite comfortable that evening at dinner. My two comrades were freezing while we sat around our little dented up tin table and they couldn't believe I wasn't cold too. Again we dined by lantern out there in the wind and the food was OK - not good, but OK.
There wasn't much to do after dinner so I turned in. I guess one of the big disadvantages of camping in tents compared to staying in a lodge is that there isn't the opportunity to mingle with others and enjoy a comfortable evening drink. Again, I listened to my short wave radio. Glad I took the radio along because it helped me to keep up with what was going on in the world and it provided some entertainment. Sometimes you can catch a really interesting story on the BBC. We were planning a big day tomorrow, so I didn't stay up very late.
I woke up a bit before dawn. Took myself over to the washroom I used the afternoon before and was coldly informed that this was the "ladies" facility and would I please get my butt out of there. OK, so I went over to the other one and waited in line for my turn to use the hole in the floor. Brushed my teeth and washed my face and man, I was ready. About this time Paul and Reinhardt were up and the cook was serving breakfast. Again I helped Reinhardt out by eating his share of fruit while he ate my share of these stinky little dried fish. Had a couple of cups of that good Tanzanian tea then we got ready to leave.
We left the
most of our gear with
the cook and then we took off heading for one of the
the Ngorongoro Crater. We had planned for a real early start,
nobody was there to unlock the gate and let us in. We waited
for some time (maybe a half hour) and finally a Park employee showed up
and let us in. We started down the road that winds down into
crater and finally had to stop to clear a rock slide.
was kind of fun tossing rocks out of the way and besides, they were
vesicular igneous rocks so they were pretty light for their
By the way, "highly vesicular igneous rocks" is nerd talk for "lava
with air in 'em."
Speaking of nerd talk, I want to tell you something. First of all, Ngorongoro isn't a crater. The word crater is a Greek word for "cup" and it more properly refers to small geologic structures like what's found inside volcanoes and small meteor impacts. When you are talking about a really big, big geologic structure like Ngorongoro, the proper term comes from the word for large kettle. I mean, when you're a hole in the ground as big as Ngorongoro you have earned the right to be called a Caldera.
So, how did this Caldera get there, you ask?. Well, geologists believe that once Ngorongoro was a volcanic mountain very much like Kilimanjaro, but somewhat larger and even higher. Like Kilimanjaro, it built itself up over time through eruptions of liquid rock (magma) and ejecting ash (hence the ash our ancient ancestors left footprints in). At some time in its fiery life, some tens of thousands of years ago, the chamber of magma drained out as the underground source of liquid rock shifted somewhere else (to Kilimanjaro?). When the magma chamber drained, a huge void was left under this big (and heavy) mountain and foomph! down it collapsed leaving a hole in the ground we call Ngorongoro. The side slopes are still there and we camped on a slope the previous evening, but the rest of the mountain is down in the hole somewhere. Isn't that cool?
Ngorongoro is considered one of the Natural Wonders of the World by people who know about such stuff. As a matter of fact, PBS has produced a wonderful film featuring Ngorongoro as part of its Living Edens series. I highly suggest you borrow a copy of the video tape from your local library, because the pictures and the professional narration is far, far better than anything I could say or show you here. All I know about the place is what I was able to see and absorb in a single morning's drive at the bottom of the Caldera.
Although the animals at Ngorongoro are protected, the Masai people are allowed limited access to grazing there. First thing I saw on reaching the floor was some Masai walking toward a couple of lions. The guys were armed with their unique spears, but that was enough for the lions - they were out of there. Paul told us something that made a lot of sense. The animals confined to the limited area of the caldera have evolved different behavior patterns from their counterparts out on the plains. I could see that their isolation, increasing in modern times, could easily lead to the formation of subspecies and - given time - complete new species.
Sadly, the rhinoceros of East Africa is highly prized in the Orient for its nose horn (which is what rhinoceros means). For some goofy reason, rich old men in Hong Kong, Japan and now China will pay hundreds of dollars for a tiny pinch of the ground up horn. For centuries, it has been a pillar of Traditional Chinese Medicine that Rhino Horn is a powerful aphrodisiac. You know, that's the wonderful thing about quack medical practices, they don't have to have any proof at all for people to shell out millions of yen for stupid and ineffective humbugs like rhino horn.
By the way, rhino horn isn't really horn at all. It's not the same material as the horns of other ungulate creatures, but it's a curious structure made of highly modified hair. The poor rhino is too stubborn to let poachers simply saw it's horn off while it just stands there - oh no, it has to use its highly aggressive and dangerous manner to make life hard on the poachers. The end result is the poachers use high powered rifles to shoot first and ask permission later with the poor rhino coming out the looser. It's not surprising that the rhinos are extinct everywhere in East Africa except a handful of highly watched and protected animals at Ngorongoro.
This morning we were really lucky. The first place we visited was a small forest where the rhinos sleep the night. In the morning they make their way across the flat plain to a lake to wallow. By golly, there were two of them off in the distance heading for the lake. I didn't have enough lens to get a good picture, but got a good sight of them in my binoculars. Then another one came trotting out of the woods just up the trail from us and I got a half way decent shot of it.
That was a real treat seeing those rare creatures. We continued on and reached the lake. Lots of pink flamingo birds make this place their home. As we approach the lake we could see that the mud made a pretty inviting place for other large creatures besides the rhinos. Hippos really liked the place too. Technically you really shouldn't call these animals "Hippopotamuses" should you? I mean, Hippo means "horse" and Potamia means "river" therefore, a hippopotamus means "river horse." I know this is splitting hairs, but these guys weren't living in a river, but a lake and I think they should be referred to as "Hippolactamuses" - right?
Seriously though, I've learned something recently that I thought you'd really like to know (oh sure!). Some really sophisticated research into the genetic sequences of Hippos and Cetaceans (you know, whales and dolphins) shows a strong link indicating that they have a common ancestor some tens of millions of years ago. That makes the Hippos the nearest land dwelling relative to the largest and heaviest creature that has ever lived on this planet (including the largest dinosaurs). I'm talking about the Blue Wale and it lives in the oceans of the world today. Really amazing to think that fossils of ancient ancestors can be found in the DNA sequences within animals that are alive today.
Anyway, back to the story:
You know, my nose is pretty much for decoration only and I say that because I don't have much of a sense of smell. I smell about as bad as I hear. Oh wait a minute, that doesn't sound right. Oh hell, who cares. Anyway, even I could smell this charnel stink coming from the lake. It wasn't real strong, but it was there and I thought it might be because the water was stagnant and without any outlet. We drove past the hippos and further around the lake and came across a horrible sight. I didn't take any pictures because I figured it would be hard to tell what you were seeing, but it was a bog (like the hippo bog) filled with hundreds of bodies of buffalo. These bodies ranged from bones to animals that were in the last stages of death. I called this area "The Bog of Death" and it was a terrible place. Our guide told us that the buffalo in the Caldera were infected with (I believe he said) anthrax and it made them weak. When they went to the lake to drink they would get caught in the mud and be too weak to pull themselves out. The scavenger birds had way too much to eat so there were hulks everywhere. Scavenger birds aren't too clean or pretty under the best of circumstances, but these birds were the filthiest I've ever seen. The whole sight was enough to make you toss you cookies (that's American for "puke").
As far as I was concerned, we spent way, way too much time there, but finally our guide started up the Land Rover and we cruised around some more. We finally ended up at a little rest center near Rhinowood and we got out to use some clean and operating facilities. There were wild critters roaming around and they didn't seem to mind the tourists at all. I got into a nice talk with a lady (something interesting, but I can't think of what it was just now). The zebras let me approach pretty closely so I could get a good photo.
Finally it was time to get back up to the rim. I'm sure we could have spent days learning about this unique place and it's familiar, but different animals, but the safari was running out of time and we had to be back in Arusha before late afternoon. We needed to be unloaded and checked into our hotels, so it was time to leave Ngorongoro.
The ride up to the rim and our arrival at Simba campground seemed to go very quickly. Now that the safari was about over, Paul, Reinhardt and I talked over what we should give the guide and the cook for a tip. Paul figured that a nice round number of local schillings amounting to about $35 per person and he suggested we give the guys a 50-50 split. I thought the amount was about right so I gave Paul $40 bucks, but I insisted that we really should reward the superior skills and education of our guide above the more common (and mediocre) skills of our cook. I suggested we give the guide a 65-35 split and he seemed to think that maybe I was right. Truth is, Paul is much more of a "people person" than I am (who isn't?) so I let him handle the tipping. As it turned out, I think the two guys were rather pleased with their tips because they made a special trip back to the hotel to return some small item that was left in the Land Rover and we left with handshakes and lots of smiles.
At last, the tents were stuck and the gear was all loaded in and on the Land Rover. A quick lunch before departing and we were on our way back to "civilization" (A.K.A. Arusha). We bounced along the road past the crossroads town of Makuyuni, back down from the highlands and toward Lake Manyara. The road had not improved during our absence.
As we were approaching the village Mto Wa Mbu our driver looked really unhappy and told us that he suddenly felt very sick. He said he needed to stop in the village and pick up some medicine for his stomach at a "chemist shop" (AKA, 'drug store') I thought to myself, OH SHIT!! We had eaten drunk the very same things as our guide and geeez-us, he's an African, for God's sake!! If he's feeling that sick from something he ate or drank, then we, coddled and weak bunch of thin-skinned bwanas that we were, WE WERE GOING TO DIE from whatever was infecting him!
We pulled off the road and into town. There were hordes of people that had to get out of our way as we passed though. All these people we were pushing out of our way seemed to be very curious about us bunch of bwanas sitting in the back of the Land Rover and I found their attention uncomfortably embarrassing. Finally our poor guide found the shop he was looking for, climbed out of the Land Rover and went into this one room shack of a drug store. While we were waiting for our driver to return, I tried not to feel too self conscious, but it was difficult. We ignored the street vendors as best we could.
As I may have hinted before, I was a little more than mildly concerned about our own prospects for contracting a "gringo" version of what our guide had (matter of fact, I was scared). I checked myself over and decided that I wasn't feeling even a little bit sick. Considering all the bouncing and pitching over that poor excuse for a road, my tummy was in remarkably good condition. I decided that whatever our guide had, we didn't share it and stopped worrying about it. Finally he came out of the one room "chemist shop" and announced that he couldn't find anything specifically for an upset stomach. I had nothing with me so I couldn't help. After throwing up, he climbed back in and we headed east for Arusha.
I was concerned for the poor guy and kept looking to see if he was getting worse and might start to upchuck again, but he seemed to be holding his own and perhaps feeling better as time went by. Finally we bounced along to the region near Mt. Losiminguri when our driver left the road to find some smoother driving across country. We came to Makuyuni were we refueled the Land Rover, looked over some stuff in the little shops and then sped back to Arusha on that really fine paved road I mentioned earlier. Our driver seemed to have completely recovered by this time.
As we drove along, I told Paul that I wasn't too happy with my "digs" there at the Naaz Hotel, so he suggested that I move up the street to the New Safari Hotel. For only $5 more per night I could stay in a much nicer place. The old 'New' Safari turned out just fine and much better than the Naaz.
The Land Rover stopped in front of the hotel, I got out and my stuff came after me. I bid our guide and our cook a goodbye and gave them a sincere thanks for a good time. I said goodbye and good luck to Reinhardt (he was off to another hotel) and that was the end of our Land Rover Safari. A day later I ran into Paul again when he stopped by my hotel and told me about a walking safari through the villages around Arusha that I should'nt miss going on. While we talked, I asked him if the guys were OK with their tips and he told me that both of them were very pleased with the amounts and with the distribution.
(Notice the building to the far
upper right of the photo. That multi-story building was under
construction so I went through it to observe its construction. As
an engineer and an amateur geologist, I was horrified, absolutely
horrified. Any little shake in this highly active region and it
would collapse burying people under tons of poorly designed and
reinforced masonary. Any time I was in any masonary building in
Tanzania I was worried about this very thing.)
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