Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Merry Crater Christmas

We had made and confirmed our reservation at the Arusha Inn, but upon arriving we are told that there isn’t enough room. We giggle, exhausted after the Sai Baba debacle and struck by the irony of there being ‘no room at the (Arusha) Inn’ for the Christmas leg of our journey. After some negotiation and questioning the hotel staff, we discover that there is one room with a King bed where the 3 of us can sleep. We burst into laughter again when we hear the number ‘3’ and the word ‘king’ in the same sentence and hum ‘we 3 kings’ on our way upstairs to the room. 

The next day we start our 2-day safari and enter a national park where we spot a few animals and have some fun. We stay overnight in a town just outside of the Ngorongoro Area, which contains the Ngorongoro crater.

Christmas Eve at Sunset
Christmas eve we watch the sunset and hang out at the lodge. We eat diner and pop a bottle of champagne. None of us have spent Christmas away from our families and we are all feeling a bit raw and nostalgic. We pass the bottle around, drinking to family and close friends and talking about our family Christmas traditions while laughing and shedding a few tears. Later in the evening, a young local man comes to the lodge and we strike up conversation. He is incredibly bright and speaks frankly about the problems in the region and his proposed solutions. He says that there is incredibly high HIV prevalence due to the through traffic of safari tour guides and the resulting sex industry. He also tells us the heart-wrenching story of how both of his parents died of AIDS related illness.

We accept his invitation to meet some of his friends in town and sit outside as Tanzanian youth bustle around the small central area of the town of Mosquito (really it was called Mosquito!). We then see our not-so-young and married tour guide drive by. A few minutes later we see him drive the other way flanked by a young woman in the passenger seat.

Based on our recent conversation about tour guides, HIV and the sex industry, this kills the mood and we decide to call it a night. We spend the final hours of Christmas eve and the first few hours of Christmas morning in serious and sometimes agitated conversation. We can't make assumptions, but we discuss our discomfort with the potential financial support we were providing to fuel the grim reality of HIV in the town. We have a open conversation and debate our differing views around responsibility and harm reduction.
I feel paralyzed by the realization that my every action has a (sometimes negative) impact. My head spins and I feel completely lost – I know nothing

We sleep a few hours and wake up to the painfully loud call to prayer emanating from the local Mosque. Usually I am enchanted by its sound, but today is sounds loud and flat.
We trudge to breakfast where our guide is waiting. We say hello and feign normalcy as we try to enjoy the treats we had brought for Christmas day – Amarula for our coffee, cheese and chocolate (all expensive rarities in Malawi). We share with our tour guide and I give the girls each an African headscarf as a gift before we set off for the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater, often called the ‘8th Natural Wonder of the World’ and ‘Africa’s Eden’ is situated just South of the Serengeti in Tanzania. It is the world’s largest unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera (if you are like me and didn’t know what a caldera is, Wikipedia describes it as ‘a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption). This particular crater was formed two to three million years ago by from the eruption of a massive volcano. It is estimated that, within the 2,000ft deep, 100 square mile crater, there are over 30,000 animals.

As we snake up the mountain towards the clouds, the upset of the night before fades away and excitement sets in. We decide to stop at a Maasai village to see how the Masaai people traditionally live. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic group of people that live in Northern Tanzania and Kenya. We meet the chief and negotiate a price before entering the village.

We leave and start descending into the crater. It looks absolutely stunning as the bright green plain welcomes us. The clouds hover gently on the edges of the crater – we are so high up that mountains touch their white softness.

As we descend it becomes quickly obvious that all isn’t well in paradise - something is wrong with our Safari vehicle. The guide can’t seem to shift very easily and we determine that there is a problem with the clutch. We make our way into the crater and he pulls over to fix the car. Not far from us is a herd of Zebras. We quietly open the door and sneak out to get a closer look. Someone makes a small noise and the guide spins around and while reprimanding us, chases us back towards the vehicle. As he yells at us to get back in, we giggle and try to stall to take a few more pictures.

He opens the roof of the vehicle to appease us and make sure we stay in the car. I climb through the opening and onto the roof. When he sees this, I receive another scolding before he clambers into the vehicle and we continue.

I have very few words to describe the experience of being in the crater. At this risk of sounding completely cliche, the best description I can offer is that I felt like I had stepped into Disney’s ‘the Lion King’.  We saw Elephants, Wildebeast, Warthogs, Lions, Hippos, Antelope, Buffalo, Monkeys and even the endangered black Rhino. There was even a rock that looked like pride rock!


Warthogs (aka Pumba)


Lioness in the tree - can you spot her?


The crater was like an incredible animal soup, and one of the most beautiful things I ever seen. We leave, tired and content, after our day of excitement.

What a way to spend Christmas! We gush about all of the animals that we saw and note with mild disappointment that the only thing we didn’t see were Giraffes.

On the drive back to Arusha, we see a herd of the gentle yellow and brown creatures.
We get out to be closer to the gentle animals. Completely satisfied, we drive back to Arusha as the sun sets behind us and Christmas draws to a close. 

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