It was a chilly morning when we piled into the two Land Cruisers and headed down the hill.
We were glad to have spent two nights at the Melia Lodge, and wished we could have spent more time relaxing here, as we have been constantly on the go this entire trip.
Our typical routine is to get up at 6:30, shower and pack, breakfast at 7:30, on the road by 8 to start our game drive. We usually stop for a boxed lunch by 1 pm, then back on the road for more game viewing. We roll into the lodge by 6, dinner at 7:30 and bed by 9. They keep us moving, and we are getting our money’s worth for sure.
Our destination today is the famed Ngorongoro crater, lying some 60 miles east of us. It is the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera measuring about 12 miles across with its forested rim rising 2,000 feet above the floor. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is well-known for its abundance of wildlife and natural beauty. It is also home to the big five, so we were looking forward to some great game viewing here.
We were soon down onto the typical Serengeti grasslands, our Cruisers speeding along the dusty, washboard roads. It is so dry and desolate here you wouldn’t think anything could live in these conditions. Somehow the the animals adapt. Everything is brown and so flat that you can see for miles in any direction. Dust is everywhere, and there are not even trees in this part of the savanah. Still, we came across herds of grazing zebras, gazelles and even a pride of lions resting on a small rocky outcrop right next to the road.
Further on in the eastern part of the Serengeti we stopped at the famous Olduvai Gorge, considered to be the “Cradle of Mankind”. It was here that fossilized primate skulls from our earliest humans ancestors and stone tools have been found dating back millions of years. Louis and Mary Leaky made many of their discoveries at this site starting in the 1930’s on through the 60’s.
We toured the exhibits and listened to a short lecture about the history, flora and geology of this important archeological site. We ate our boxed lunches gazing over the beautiful gorge while pondering the question of where we all came from.
Leaving the gorge, we began a gradual climb of the Ngorongo highlands leading to the crater’s edge. Along the way we came across Maasai warriors tending their cattle and goats in the fields. Each were dressed in colorful red and blue robes, heads shaved, carrying walking sticks and long knives strapped to their waist.
We saw groups of young Maasai boys, about 15 or 16 years of age, standing next to the road watching us as we passed. Their faces painted white, giving them a ghostly, other worldly appearance.
Severin explained to us the culture and customs of this mysterious tribe. The boys, he told us, are sent away from the village to learn how to survive on their own. In older times, they were to prove their manhood by killing a lion with a spear or a leopard with a club. Now they go off into the wild for 6 months at a time, learning from a tribal elder. Following this apprenticeship, they return to their village to pick out a wife.
Nearing the crater, we stopped at a Maasai village perched on a hill above a small lake. As we approached, we saw several Maasai herding cattle stretched out in a long single file toward the water. The village consisted of round mud huts, enclosed by a circular tall wooden fence made of Acacia thorns. Parking outside, we were met by the son of the tribal leader and were entertained by song and dance by the Maasai women and men who came to greet us. We were invited inside where they demonstrated how they make fire, jewelry and live their everyday lives. We toured their homes and visited a class room where the small children learned English.
It is almost impossible to believe that people still live this way today in the midst of our modern world. But, here they are, a proud people, clinging steadfast to their beliefs and culture.
The Maasai are a nomadic people, fiercely protective of their cattle which they raise for food and barter. They believe that all cows on this earth belong to them and will steal other tribes cattle they may come across. Their mud huts are small, dark dome structures framed with wood branches and covered with an adobe made with mud and animal dung. It is partitioned into three sleeping quarters: one for the husband and wife, one for the children and one for the animals. Cattle is so important to them that they will bring a newborn calf into their hut to protect it. They rarely eat meat and almost never eat fruit or vegetables. For protein, they drink the blood of cows, often mixed with milk, harvesting it without harming the animal by puncturing the jugular vein with an arrow. The men have multiple wives, and, while there, I was offered one by our Maasai guide. We laughed when Roz explained that I had my hands full with this one!
We said goodbye to the village and made down from the rim to the floor of the Ngorongoro crater. Here we saw lakes with large flocks of pink flamingos, herds of zebras, wildebeests, hyenas and lions. This is the one area, Severin explained, that lions become scavengers, not hunters like in other parts of Africa. Because the grass is so short, they cannot hide while they stalk their prey. Instead, they must rely on stealing fresh kills or finding leftovers. Here, the hyena is king of jungle.
We climbed a steep, but paved, road back to the rim our way back the rim and onto the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge for the night. It was freezing cold and, at 7500 feet above sea level, quite a contrast to the hot grasslands we had been accustomed to. The buildings were constructed of large river rocks, reminding me more of a ski chalet than a safari lodge. We huddled around the fireplace while we checked in and were briefed on the following days activities.
That evening, as we climbed into our warm beds, I couldn’t help but think of the Maasai villagers down the hill not far from us, huddled with their animals in their small mud huts, with no electricity and protected from the lions by only a thin, thorny fence. How thankful I was to be here instead.