Tanzania – Part 13: Empakai


Running Log, 1/3/11 — 3M at Ngorongoro Campground

After a week on Safari, this would be the first time we would be staying in the same place for more than one night. It felt luxurious to watch other campers pack up all their stuff, knowing that we were staying put.

Although the wonders of Ngorongoro beckoned to us from below, our plan for Day 7 of our trip was to drive about 2 1/2 hours further up into the hills to a smaller, more remote crater called Empakai. Unlike the game drives, where we were more or less confined to our vehicles, we had chosen to drive to Empakai for what Rob said was the opportunity to spend much of the day hiking. That was the plan. It turned out that we didn’t fully understand the nature of the adventure, and the hike ended up being quite different from what we had imagined.


The first clue that this would be no ordinary walk in the woods came only a few minutes after we set off in the Land Cruiser. Instead of immediately heading North toward the higher mountains and our destination, we backtracked to the local ranger station. There we picked up a park ranger who would accompany us for the entire day. It turned out that this was a requirement for visiting Empakai.

Our ranger-for-hire wore a dark green uniform and carried a rifle. His bearing was that of a military man: alert and all business as he took a seat next to Rob in the front of the vehicle. Although he spoke English, he and Rob would periodically exchange brief remarks in Swahili, presumably about wildlife activity where we were headed, and other practical matters.

We soon turned off the paved road, and began heading Northeast. We were now approaching the massive Ol Doinyo Lengai, but from the opposite side, that is, from the highlands to the West of the mountain, rather than from the dry basin to the East where we had drive several days ago. We had effectively completed a huge circle over the course of the last week. After our first night in Tarangire, we had driven the better part of a day through the dry valley on the Eastern side of the Rift Escarpment gazing up at the imposing and mysterious mountain to the West; we had camped at Lake Natron near the Kenyan Border; we had turned West to climb the escarpment on the worst roads any of us had ever seen, and had entered the Northern Serengeti near Loliondo; we had made our way South through the Seronera and Central Serengeti to follow the lives of the wildlife there; we had driven further South to Lake Ndutu, and from Lake Ndutu we had driven East again to enter Ngorongoro Conservation area and begin the long climb up the into the highlands. Like the Wildebeest, we had been migrating across the plains almost non-stop. Now we were on the upper shelf of the Escarpment and climbing towards the mountains that we had once admired from thousands of feet below.

It was a long drive and, for the most part, there was little conversation. The road passed through broad valleys whose slopes were dotted with Maasai villages. The scale of these valleys was so vast that even the large herds of cattle that grazed there seemed to be only insignificant smudges of brown and white in a never-ending landscape of green. Unlike our recent travels, we saw no evidence of other tourists on this leg of our journey. In contrast to Ngorongoro, Empakai Creater is not on the beaten path, even by Tanzanian standards. Unless you are ready to leave any vehicle behind and hike for days along the edge of the Escarpment, it is a dead-end trip to an out-of-the way location where you need to be escorted by a man with a gun.


It was almost noon when we stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. There were no signs, landmarks or other indications that there were trails nearby, or anything else worth seeing, for that matter. We just stopped the car and got out. It seemed the first part of our hike would be just continuing to walk down this road for a while. Our guard told us to keep together. He said that if he were forced to use his rifle, the first shot would be in the air, and the second would be to kill. Ann asked if he had ever had to kill an animal. “Oh yes, many times,” he replied without smiling.


Hikers and guard.

So we grabbed a couple of backpacks with water and lunch, and we set off down the road. We walked for about 15-20 minutes until we came to a little clearing where we could see the crater below us and the sulfur lake that covered most of the crater floor. The view was very beautiful, but we didn’t see any way down the steep slopes. Then Rob pointed out a narrow path that plunged away from the road to our left. With our guard in front and Rob bringing up the rear, we started picking our way down the twisted path to the bottom of the crater nearly a thousand feet below.

The walk brought out our guard’s talkative side. He started describing the plants and trees along the path. He stopped to show us what he called a “strangle tree” — a vine that germinates in the upper branches of an existing tree and grows down to the ground, sometimes strangling and killing the original tree in the process.


The “strangle tree”

When we reached the bottom of the crater, we seemed to have entered a hidden paradise. The bowl of the crater was about 6km across a narrow salty shoreline surrounding a natural sulfur lake. There were hundred if not thousands of flamingos here, as well as other birds circling and circling, perhaps hunting for insects hatching off the surface of the lake.

With our guard still urging us not to wander too far away from the group, we gradually dispersed to our own pursuits. Peter took pictures of birds and wildflowers. Ann examined paw prints in the sand and wondered what animal had made them. Loren walked a long ways along the shore, testing the boundary of what “too far away from the group” meant. Joni chafed at the realization that we really weren’t going to be hiking much, except of course to climb back up out of the crater at some point.

We ate lunch. We lay on the rocks. We strolled on the beach. We saw no ferocious animals and no other people.

By mid-afternoon, we were ready to head back, and so we retraced our steps. The climb was strenuous and it took us a while, but felt good after our “confinement” in the crater.

The drive back to our campsite seemed even longer than the drive we had taken to reach Empakai. Maybe after a full week in a Land Cruiser, of being on our guard against predators at every turn, we had simply reached the point where we were ready to end our safari. But before returning to Arusha the following afternoon, we had one more adventure planned: a final game drive in Ngorongoro Crater in the morning. Not that it wasn’t spectacular from above, but another day seemed almost too much. Would we see anything we hadn’t already seen?


Once back at the campsite, I changed into running clothes and while everyone else rested before dinner, ran about 25 minutes around the perimeter of the camp. Since it was sloped and since we were at nearly 7000 feet, every time I turned up hill I felt like I was getting in very intense fartlek. I felt very good. My legs were good, my breathing came hard but that was OK. I was happy.

I had no way of knowing that it would be the last healthy run I would have for a long time, or that I would never again take for granted the ability to do what I was doing at that moment — running powerfully uphill, with lungs effortlessly drawing breath after satisfying breath of beautiful air.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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