Sunday, July 29, 2007

Safari, So Good

Early the next morning, we escaped Zurich’s clinical confines for sub-Saharan Africa. A seven-hour hour flight, with a brief stopover in Nairobi, delivered us to an entirely new world. As we made our way into Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital city, we watched the sun rapidly set over rolling savannah dotted with acacia trees. After strolling past several smiling airport employees (we weren’t in Switzerland anymore), we proceeded to procure a Tanzanian arrival visa, clear customs and collect our luggage. Outside baggage claim, a friendly representative from Conservation Corporation Africa met us (albeit with the wrong name on his placard) to whisk us to our hotel.

Our twenty-minute night-time car journey gave us scant opportunity to survey the sprawl of Dar Es Salaam (meaning House of Peace in Arabic). Nevertheless, in the dark, the city resembled a miniature and much less congested version of Bombay. When the car pulled up to the Kilimanjaro Kempinski – an extraordinarily reasonably-priced swanky five-star hotel fronted by the Indian Ocean – we quickly checked in and made our way to our room. Within minutes, we were upstairs relaxing in our well-appointed room surfing the internet with the flat-screen television in the background tuned to American programming.

Early the next morning, we commenced an exhaustive journey to Ngorongoro Crater in the northeastern corner of the country. We boarded a tiny ten-seater puddle-jumper at Dar Es Salaam’s domestic airport and proceeded to make pitstops at the vivid beach island of Zanzibar (a Tanzanian protectorate) and the outfitter town of Arusha before changing planes to continue on to Manyara where we landed on an unpaved, dirt airstrip quite literally in the middle of nowhere. While waiting in Arusha, we met two friendly fellow guests, Dot and Jim, an adventurous couple from Philadelphia on their second safari vacation in two years.

After deplaning at Manyara, we were left with a two-hour ride through red soil plains and dense foliage into the actual crater, which was formed 5,000 years ago when a massive mountain (larger than Kilimanjaro) erupted and then collapsed within itself. The resulting crater (technically a caldera) became a self-contained wildlife preserve hosting an ecosystem of life attracted to its nutrient-rich soil. As a result, Ngorongoro did not feature a massive animal migration like most other wildlife-rich areas in sub-Saharan Africa where animal sightings were much less guaranteed.

When we finally arrived at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, we were led to a private Masai hut bathed with luxurious décor and overlooking the crater floor below. With the late afternoon approaching, we relaxed on the patio to take in the views before settling by the fireplace with a glass of sherry in hand.

In the evening, a Masai guide (responsible for protecting us from any wild buffalo attacks) led us to the main lodge building for drinks and dinner with the other guests. As we finished our main course, the entire lodge staff assembled into a long procession and began singing and dancing. We assumed that we were being regaled by the standard evening entertainment. It was only when everyone congregated at our table with chocolate cake and candles that we realized that we were being wished a happy (early) anniversary. As we speechlessly watched it unfold before us, we were simultaneously touched and profoundly embarrassed. As we left the lodge, a number of other families thoughtfully added their congratulations and best wishes.

At 6:00 a.m. the following day, we arose for a sunrise safari in Ngorongoro Crater, gingerly sneaking past a herd of water buffalo stationed just a few yards away from our front door. Even bundled into our fleece jackets and huddled into blankets in the jeep, we were surprised by the briskness of the morning. Accompanying us on the excursion was our driver, Aziza (the only female guide in all of Tanzania) as well as Dot and Jim. As our Land Cruiser descended into the crater via rough, uneven dirt roads, a thick mist enveloped the ground. A mere hour later, as the sun rose and intensified, the mist burned off to reveal an African wonderland straight out of National Geographic.

Despite rules forbidding off-road driving in Ngorongoro Crater National Park, we were still treated up close to a veritable living cocktail of the animal kingdom over the next several hours. Our sightings included hippos sleeping in the muddy riverbank with flamingos by their side, a large herd of zebras crossing the road in single file, a pair of cheetahs with a fresh kill in their jaws and a lone elephant feasting on a lunch on freshly-upturned tree branches and shoots. The clear highlight of our safari was observing a lion and lioness sleeping together in the tall grass. The hours flew by as we stood basking in the sun with our collective heads poking out of the open air roof of our 4x4. In the late morning, we finally stopped for a picnic breakfast where Aziza capably swatted away a would-be burglar (in the form of a monkey boasting extremely-colorful family jewels) to save our meal.

We finally headed back to the lodge in the afternoon, exhilarated by our time with the animals in their own habitat. After a sunny outdoor lunch on the patio of the main lodge building, we returned to our suite for a much-needed nap. By the time we awoke, dinner time beckoned, and we made our way to the lodge to compare animal sightings with the other guests assembled. Returning to our room, we were heartened by the thought that we had seen Ngorogoro's full portfolio of beasts, save for the elusive tree leopard and black rhino.

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