Published: December 28th 2011December 28th 2011
Ngorongoro Crater Wall
The Descent Road, not as steep
We had to say goodbye to Edwin yesterday when he dropped us back in Arusha for our flight out. (He dropped us at the Arusha Hotel, made famous by John Wayne in Hatari, and they were milking that connection for every ounce of benefit.) Edwin is my one and only example of a safari driver, so it is hard to make comparisons, but we were thrilled with everything he had to show us and could not have asked for better.
He works for Leopard Tours, one of the largest in Tanzania, with over 150 vehicles in their fleet. We saw their vans everywhere we went and they always exchanged a friendly wave or headlight blink. That connection certainly came in handy for another Leopard driver when he got stuck in the mud at Lake Ndutu, because three other drivers, including Edwin, hung around to pull him out. Otherwise the safari companies can get a little competitive, each trying to muscle closest or first to a certain game sighting.
The safari had been organized through AlfaZulu Travel in Dar, where my sister lives. They certainly did a great job with all the details, as well as the flights to get
In the Carter, the "Ox Picker" (bird) is family
us there and back, which so far have gone without a hitch, knock on wood! For our Africa trip as a whole we also used a great travel agent in Halifax, Megan at Adventure Travel Resource. The options can sometimes be daunting, so it can be great to have someone who deciphers all the terminology. She had many "local consolidators" she worked with on the ground in Africa too.
Back to the driver: I would not recommend you try to "self-drive" (another term used a lot in the Africa travel world) the Serengeti. The roads are very difficult and it is an understatement to say you need extra-special skill and experience to do it. Even when you are on a paved road, the way will be dotted with all manner of speed bump, hole, crevice, etc. Then in the national park it gets reduced to an "all weather" gravel road which is a hump of stone barely wider than two safari vans which will often be washboard ridged or have parts under water. To get where you want to go, however you also have to use various mere grass tracks. These frequently turn into deep ruts in the mud
Edwin, Barbe and I
Always a bright smile on his face!
and unfortunately get wider and wider as drivers try to go around the mud.
And the vehicles are very specialised as well. Edwin's Land Cruiser had 4-wheel drive, which is required in the Ngorongoro crater floor area, but absolutely essential in most other wildlife areas as well. The high suspension got us over many obstacles. The seating was ideal for our group of seven, all getting window seats, and the raisable roof was a boon for animal viewing. I wondered where he snuck off to each evening to fill up on gas, but then discovered he actually had an extra gas tank in the vehicle. In the Serengeti there are not many places to fill up!
Edwin's last feat of strength was getting us out of the Crater. "Lerai Forest Ascent Road" sounds pretty benign. Lerai is the Masai name for a beautiful green-barked acacia tree. We had just seen our last lions lazing in the shade as we started climbing. The gears were going lower and lower. I was glad they dedicate this road to getting out, as you would not want to meet another vehicle. The surface was red dirt reminiscent of PEI, thankfully dry today.
Elephant in the Crater
Quiet, graceful and ancient
The previous afternoon it had rained quite hard right at the hour when the vans climb out of the crater, and I would not have wanted any extra chance of sliding on this. We climbed 610 meters in about 15 minutes, with sheer cliffs on the right side. The only distraction was the view getting better and better in the late day sun. Although I felt very confident with Edwin's driving, this was pretty hair raising! But soon we were back on the rim and "all weather" gravel.
The crater is absolutely spectacular. Better than when you first look down from the rim of the Grand Canyon, and without all the people. You have a feel of very ancient places here, maybe heightened because the day before we saw 3 million year old footsteps of man at the Olduvai gorge. The frequent mistiness of the crater contributes to the sense of history. The Masai are permitted to bring their cattle in to graze during the day (yes, walking down and up those incredible walls), although they stay to one side of the floor with their striking red cloaks.
Rules for driving in Tanzania:
1-Drive on the left side of the road, unless the right side has fewer pot holes;
2-The largest vehicle has right of way;
3-At a red light, pause and proceed when you have the right of way (see rule #2);
4-At a green light, pause and proceed (see rule #3);
5-If a pedestrian tries to cross, accelerate;
6-If there is a motorcycle travelling slower than you (especially with a 4 foot wide load of firewood), honk until they yield;
7-A bajaji will float (terrible floods in Dar this week), but it may use the sidewalk even in dry weather.