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Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Northern Circuit, Tanzania

Leaving Serengeti behind, we make the drive to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). For an eternity we stare out at flat, featureless plains and not much else. It's a beautiful day but the animals have hidden themselves well. Eventually we hit the bottom of the ancient Ngorongoro Volcano and begin our ascent towards the crater rim. The grasslands continue on the way up but at least there is variation in the terrain. The Maasai appear as we climb higher, herding large herds of cattle and goats.


Near the top we pull in at a lookout, which was completely obscured by cloud when we drove by three days ago. Today we see a vast, empty crater, which looks gigantic but is minuscule in comparison with the size of Serengeti. Between the lookout and our campsite we are treated to a mini-game drive, passing zebras, giraffe, elephants and yet more cattle. 


The campsite is a spacious green field that is covered in animal poo - it’s like we are staying on a farm. There is only one other couple here, towing a camping trailer. As this is the only public campsite in the NCA, the site is usually so packed you can barely move. Again, we consider ourselves fortunate to be having a crowd-free experience. The site contains two kitchen halls, two dining halls, two bathroom blocks with hot water, and WiFi - it's almost luxurious. I have my first shower in three days (don’t judge me: Danny also takes a shower, his first since leaving Hong Kong six days ago) and it’s by far the best shower I’ve experienced in Tanzania.


There are two downsides to the campsite. Firstly, we are disappointed there isn’t much of a view of the crater floor. Secondly, being 2800m above sea level, the chilly air and howling winds create Arctic-like conditions. After scrubbing myself clean, I put on every item of clothing I have with me. Thankfully the dining hall is a completely enclosed cement building, and is multitudes of degrees warmer than outside.

Around sunset,  we are awestruck to see a herd of zebra stroll right through the campsite, only metres from our tent. We rush out to gain a closer look, where we excitedly watch them undertake the mundane task of eating grass. They hang around for about an hour, during which time I’ve taken roughly 100 photos. At one point I am only five metres away from one; he isn’t fussed. Apparently elephants and giraffe also wander through sometimes. This is the best campsite ever. 

Over dinner we discuss various topics with Richard to learn more about Tanzania. Here is a run down:

  • There are approximately 1800 safari guides in northern Tanzania, and only 10 are female. Women cannot be in a relationship if they want to be a guide. Husbands will not allow their wives to go away on a tour without them for days at a time, but it's perfectly acceptable for men to do so.

  • When two people get married in Tanzania, the man decides what occupation his wife will have. This is discussed before marriage, giving the woman the option to back out. I'm not sure how this would go down in Australia...

  • The Maasai are very self-sufficient. They raise goats or cattle to eat or trade, usually exchanging the animals for beans and maize to make ugali. The animal’s milk is used to make yoghurt, to eat with ugali. Animal blood is also consumed.

  • Money means nothing to the Maasai community; status is achieved by the quantity and quality of their livestock. 

  • Modern transport and machinery is generally not used. They walk everywhere in their leather sandals, no matter how far away their destination is. 

  • When they need fire for cooking, they produce it the old-fashioned way by rubbing two sticks together. They are also happy to eat raw meat.

  • It is government regulation that all children go to school. Money the Maasai receive (usually from village tours) is used to buy school supplies. 

  • Polygamy is common, with men having many wives (women can only have one husband). Men often use jumping contests to prove their worth as a partner. I ask Richard how many wives he has. He says one is enough. 


After dinner it’s straight to bed for us, where we wrap ourselves up tightly in our sleeping bags and listen to elephants calling to each other through the night. 

I have a terrible night’s sleep, waking up at 2 a.m. and laying awake for hours. It's not cold, but the fierce wind constantly shakes the tent, rattling numerous zips. I don't feel too refreshed when the alarm blares at 5.30 a.m. 


An hour later we set off, driving through fog so thick we can barely see a few metres ahead of us. When we arrive at the main gate we find it locked, but gratefully someone appears to open it for us. I guess we are the first to enter the crater today. 


The views driving down the crater wall are incredible. As we descend we leave the fog behind, revealing the expansive lands below. The sun breaks through the dark clouds to form a spotlight, shining directly on the silvery crater lake. Fog sits on top of the crater walls like a protective blanket. Everything is still and peaceful. It feels surreal, as though I’m on a movie set.


Richard tells us to expect similar animals to Serengeti, although there aren't any giraffes or leopards due to the lack of or wrong type of trees. How it differs, though, is in its vegetation, the backdrop (the crater walls) and the concentration of animals, all living together in a contained ecosystem. As an added bonus, there is also the remote possibility of catching a glimpse of the elusive black rhino. 


Upon reaching the crater floor we hit the plains, the lake shimmering in the background. Almost immediately we catch sight of impala, gazelles, ostriches, buffaloes, wildebeest, crowned cranes, zebras, jackals and hippos, all in close quarters. A whole pride of lions, including two females, four males and four cubs, sit only metres from us. None of the nearby herbivores seem to be concerned about the predators.