Monday, March 24, 2008

Ngorongoro Crater

Sorry for the silence. I have more visitors in town and I have been showing them around Kampala, traveling a little bit, and not spending much time on the Internet. I have a nice backlog of stories to share and hopefully from here on out posting will be more regular. Now, to pick up where I left off, we flew with my parents from Entebbe to Mt. Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania on March 1…

I used the Let’s Go travel agency at Garden City to book our safari in Tanzania. Everything went fairly smoothly until the day a couple of weeks ago I went to pick up our airline tickets and final itinerary. V, the woman I worked with, informed me our Air Uganda flight time had been changed and we would now be arriving at 2:45 PM. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Ngorongoro Crater and the park gates close at 6:00 PM sharp. So let’s do the math. After going through immigration and picking up our luggage, we would hope to be out of the airport to meet our driver by 3:00, at the earliest and assuming our flight is actually on time, and then drive really fast (according to V) and make it to the park in time. Now, I don’t know about you, but my third grade math teacher would have told me that it would be impossible to make it to the park in time even if we didn’t have to pass through immigration and pick up our luggage. And, considering the roads in Uganda and assuming Tanzania’s were not much different, I really didn’t want to put our lives in danger by driving really fast.

I told V I was very uncomfortable with the situation. I asked for alternatives. She insisted it would be fine. I asked to speak to her manager. Instead we emailed her colleague in Tanzania…who also insisted it would be fine. Now that the trip is over, I can see that they were probably right. It probably would have been fine. The Kilimanjaro airport was a breeze. The roads in Tanzania are nothing like the roads in Uganda. The road to Ngorongoro was a dream, a highway to heaven, yes, but also made of heaven. Thank you to the people of Japan who paid for that road and arranged for it to be installed. Could you please come to Uganda and build a road to Bwindi? But I know myself. I know that with that schedule and knowing nothing of the airport or the roads of the reliability of Air Uganda arriving on time, I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have literally given myself a migraine worrying if we were going to make it in time.

Because when I asked V if, hypothetically, we arrived at the gates at 6:05 and they wouldn’t let us in, what then, she had no answer for me. Seriously, silence. We sleep in the car? We drive back to Arusha and shell out another couple of hundred dollars for a hotel room when we’re already paying for the hotel room in Ngorongoro? You can see this wasn’t really an option, right? Because V made me feel like a really neurotic, really problematic American. And maybe I am.

Eventually, when I was near tears and J accompanied me to the office to speak to V, we arranged to spend our first night at the Mountain View Lodge just outside of Arusha. It’s run by Serena, as all were all our hotels that week, and it was lovely. No stress, just an afternoon drinking Kilimanjaro beer and playing cribbage. I was pleased with the outcome.

The following morning we left early for the three and a half hour drive to Ngorongoro Crater and spent the afternoon driving through its interior. Ngorongoro Crater is a collapsed volcano, 20 kilometers in diameter, with animals passing in and out. A soda lake, Lake Magadi, lies on one side and, as my dad liked to say, it was “filthy with flamingos.” (I don't have a picture of the flamingos for you because they were really too far away to get a good photo.)

We caught three enormous male lions napping along the side of the road. A black rhinocerous wandered across the landscape in the distance. A herd of elephants gathered at the base of the crater, though we could only see them through binoculars. Hyenas—though mangy and mostly pretty unattractive—have endearing round ears. Ngorongoro is a stunning location with more animals than you can shake a stick at all gathering in this small little area. Really amazing. Here’s the view from the Serena lodge:

What we saw:
Zebra, wildebeest, Thompson’s gazelle, black rhino, lions, hyena, elephant (though only at a great distance), eland, buffalo, and lots of birds, including ostrich, flamingo (about 1 million of them), Crowned Crane (Uganda’s national bird), heron, pelican, black crake, and a number of others whose names I didn’t write down.

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