Ngorongoro Crater – the Garden of Eden or Disneyworld?
This was my second pilgrimage to the Garden of Eden. What can I say about the Ngorongoro Crater that hasn’t been said? The circular caldera of approximately ten miles in diameter is in one word, dizzying: open savannah here; an acacia forest there; a dry soda lake here; a swampy hippo pool there; and don’t forget the patch of rainforest on the rim. Flying in from Meru-Nairobi-Kilimanjaro to the Ngorongoro airstrip on the rim of the Crater in record time, we wolfed down our picnic lunch at the airstrip as we met our private guide who would be with us the rest of the way in Tanzania. Dominyk (or “Dom”), is a quick-witted Australian with a particular fondness for snakes and, for the next eight days, would serve as a tireless caretaker for the five American tourists. Eager to get down to the floor of the Crater for the afternoon, we cut the acquaintance session short.
The Crater is indeed a sensory overload. As soon as we descended, we saw a pride of lions resting, a hyena chasing a wildebeest, and zebras scratching their hides against rocks right next to our vehicle. Crowned cranes to the left, flamingoes to the right, a bull elephant emerging from Lerai Forest in the distance, and soon I begin to wonder if I brought enough flash memory cards for my digital camera. Something is amiss though, when you can practically reach out and touch a wildebeest without its batting an eye. Is this real or is this Jungle Cruise at Disneyworld? Do these wildebeests get paid at the end of day when all the tourist vehicles must leave the Crater?
In terms of phantasmagoria, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge somehow manages to outdo the Crater itself. Run by CC Africa, the Crater Lodge, in my opinion, is completely over the top – and I don’t mean that in a good way. There is a telephone in every room; serviced laundry is brought back to the room accompanied by a long-stemmed rose; and while you are at supper, unbeknownst to you, the staff draws you a rose pedal-sprinkled hot bath – even though you may have had the intention of just taking a shower. I wonder if CC Africa (“CC” by the way, ironically, stands for “Conservation Corp”) knows about the power rationing going on in much of Tanzania. A vast majority of power generation in Tanzania is hydroelectric. The recent drought and mismanagement have led to a shortage of electricity, and even significant towns such as Arusha are experiencing scheduled blackouts. I know there is rarely a water problem at the Crater, and the water from the Crater probably doesn’t end up in a hydroelectric power plant, but the nightly bath water thing seems out of place, at least, at this particular time.
The second day (a full day game drive) at Ngorongoro was, of course, spectacular. Lions and black rhinos are always special. But at the end of the day, as I sipped Moet & Chandon Champagne in the highly ornate dining room, I knew I wasn’t coming back. That’s just me though. Many of the local guides feel the same way I do, but they all agree that Ngorongoro should be seen at least once. It is akin to a serious recreational golfer paying $500 to play Pebble Beach once to see what it’s all about.