Feeling both refreshed and invigorated by our visit to Tarangire National Park, we departed from the adjacent airstrip for a 30 minute flight to the Manyara airstrip, on the top of the escarpment above the lake. Here, our guide was cheerfully waiting to escort us up to the highlands of the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Ngorongoro crater must be on most people’s “bucket list” – it was most certainly on mine. The largest intact, open caldera in the world is a virtual paradise for those who love wildlife, with over 25,000 animals including; lion, leopard, elephant, black rhinoceros, buffalo, wild dog, wildebeest, zebra, eland, giraffe and more. This conservation area is also the only one of its kind where man, wildlife and domestic animals co-exist. Tall, elegant Maasai live in villages here, and can be seen herding their cattle along the side of the road. Cattle can be seen grazing alongside wildebeest in the fields. Not to mention it is also one of the seven natural wonders in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We arrived near the edge of the crater to find an elegant, private tented camp which had been set up close to the rim of the crater. Sanctuary Retreats offers exclusive private camping which can be customized by site, number of people and an agreed upon itinerary. I hesitate to even call this camping as we found luxurious, full sized safari tents, each with its own private attendant, verandah, hot water, electricity, gas stoves (for chilly nights) and big fluffy beds. Our tents were placed next to a main mess tent in a semi-circle with stunning views. We indulged in gourmet meals on linens by candlelight and sipped brandy around the outdoor fire as the sun set. The air was cool and crisp, the skies afire with shimmering stars – this was romantic Africa.
The next morning after a peaceful sleep, we excitedly embarked on our first game drive. Driving through the crater, I was struck with not only the vast diversity of game but also terrain. We had come from our mountain-like site to vast sweeping plains where the game was incredibly abundant. Almost immediately we spotted a pair of mating lions, then vast herds of buffalo, zebra and wildebeest. Plains gave way to lush green swamps and forests where we spotted elephants, hippos, black rhinoceros and a cheetah feasting on a gazelle.
Around the campfire, as we began to share our adventures, the Maasai appeared, silently at first, then breaking into a hauntingly beautiful performance of song and dance. Tall men jumped high into the air, women chanted and sang. The sun began to dip below a rim of acacia trees in shades of crimson and amber. The fire flickered in the foreground and we sat transfixed by this ancient ritual.
As we prepared to move onward to the Serengeti, I found myself thinking of the vast treasures of the Ngorongoro Crater. This is a place that is not only breathtakingly beautiful but is rich in culture, wildlife, geology, and history. Although there is a check next to the crater on my bucket list, this is one place I hope to re-visit. It is deeply embedded in my memories and will continue to fill my dreams.