I started publishing this journal in January 2011, shortly after my family returned from our unforgettable trip to Tanzania. But telling the story of the trip turned out to be a much bigger project than I bargained for. Furthermore, a few weeks after beginning, the story changed so that I realized it would need a different and more complicated ending. Although I did my best to keep writing, new entries appeared more and more sporadically. And then, almost a year after I had started, they stopped appearing altogether, and as far as anyone knew, our family continued to languish at the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater staring at a strange creature called a Serval cat.
For a while, Kevin would try to goad me into writing the next installment. At first he’d ask every week, then it was every month, then it was every six months or so. I told him I hadn’t forgotten, and I’d get to it… someday.
In truth, I found the final chapters to be a challenge. For one thing, I became frustrated by my inability to convey what I found strange and unfamiliar about our experiences in Tanzania. As I look over my last entry on the wildlife of Ngorongoro, it all seems so conventional, and not at all like the other-worldly weirdness of being there. To give just one example, I feel I’ve failed to explain the persistent feeling I had that whenever we stopped — for example, when we stopped for lunch in Ngorongoro — we were being sized up as a potential meal for somebody else. (I remember that there was one particular spot on the floor of the crater where all the Safari trucks would go when it was time for a mid-day break. There was a small stream feeding a pond there, but for some reason it was not overrun with lions, hyenas, and baboons. There were, however, many birds there, and we were cautioned rather strongly not to leave our lunches unattended for even a moment, as the birds would swoop down and steal stuff all the time.) So I procrastinated, and the final few chapters of the story remained untold…
It must have been shortly after the lunch with the thieving birds that we spotted the serval cat, and shortly after THAT that we decided it was time to drive up out of the crater and return to the campsite to prepare for our afternoon trip back to Arusha. Our final thrill from Ngorongoro was the long climb that brought us from the thick forest in the basin to the rim of the crater approximately 2000 feet above. The ascent took us nearly half an hour, as Peter (our driver) coaxed the Land Rover up the steep grade, and the engine growled and whined with the effort. By now we trusted Peter so well, that we never bothered watching the road, but instead gazed back at the plain opening up below us. With every switchback, our perspective shifted and the landscape became more and more vast; it seemed impossible that only a short time before we had been specs of dust in that landscape.
Departures and Farewells
When we returned to the campground, it was with mixed feelings. All that we had seen that morning was fresh in our minds, and in some ways it had been the best, most exciting day of our Safari. But at the same time, we were all sick of being confined in the back seats of the Land Rover for ten or more hours a day, not to mention the cramped quarters of the campgrounds at night. We were returning to civilization: to showers and toilets and restaurants and dala dalas and a man-made world where we could spend our money on pizza and bear without worrying about being eaten by big cats, eviscerated by wild boar, or trampled by ill-tempered hippos.
It was also with mixed feeling that we said good-bye to Henry. He had been our cook for the entire trip, and for eight days had prepared and served feasts in the most inhospitable of places. While we had been exploring Ngorongoro, he had been talking with another expedition, and had accepted an offer to stay on with a group that was just beginning its week-long adventure. So as we prepared to head back to Arusha, he prepared to return to the Serengeti.
As we had packed a lot of our stuff at dawn, it didn’t take us long to organize what was left, and for Peter and Rob to stow it in the Land Cruiser. An hour after we had emerged from the crater, we were rolling out of Simba campground and hitting the road for the final leg of our journey.
Out of the mountains
Our entire trip had taken in a great coounter-clockwise circle beginning at Tangire, heading North to Lake Natron, West to the Northern entrance to the Serengeti, and then South to Olduvai Gorge and Ngorongoro. It is, perhaps, more common to begin a Serengeti trip from the craters, and so as we headed home, we saw vehicles like our own heading in the opposite direction, and it was strange to think of all the people embarking on their own adventure, maybe with no more understanding of what it would be like than we had had when set out only a week ago.
It was a long gradual drive down from the Ngorongoro Highlands at about 8500 feet, and as the altitude dropped, the afternoon grew warmer and the landscape became drier and dustier. After a hour or so, we stopped at a National Park station to register our departure and the completion of our trip. Not long after, we reached the edge of the escarpment, and stopped once more to gaze out over this ancient fault line marking the transition from the highlands to the plains. There was an overlook, from which we could see Lake Manyara, yet another stunning landscape, but one we would not have a chance to explore. And then that, too, was behind us, and we were on a two-lane highway heading for the big city.
There would be one final stop to take care of a small errand. Although until this point I had resisted buying anything from the local Maasai, I had a notion to acquire as a gift for Tyler a pair of locally-made sandals, constructed from rubber salvaged from old tires and then decorated with local beadwork. Our guide at Lake Natron had worn such sandals, and in my mind they were footwear for running. Rob had told me there was a small roadside market on the way back that might have them for sale, and sure enough, there was a guy selling exactly what I was looking for. I spent a couple of minutes using my broken Swahili to inquire about the price and barter. In truth, I had no idea what I should expect to pay for these, so I was grateful when Rob stepped in to represent me in the transaction. A few minutes later we left the market with the deal concluded.
The comforts of home
It was about five in the afternoon when the Land Rover pulled through the gates of “The Outpost,” the hotel where we would spend our last two nights in Tanzania. Rob and Peter helped us unload all our stuff, and then departed. (We’d see Rob the next day, and see Peter again the day after that when the two of them would drive us to the airport.) After they left, it really began to sink in how far we had traveled together. It was very strange to think we wouldn’t be sleeping in a tent that night, wouldn’t be sitting together at a wooden table at a small campsite eating Henry’s simple but delicious meals, a tiny island of light in the darkness of the bush. No, we were back in the city now, at a hotel that seemed almost impossibly luxurious, with indoor plumbing, a dining room and bar, and even a pool in the courtyard.
In a couple of hours, we’d take a taxi into downtown to an Indian Restaurant, where we’d order from lengthy menus as we celebrated Joni’s birthday. In the meantime, we could think of nothing better than to sit by the pool, drink a bottle of beer, and be blissfully happy doing absolutely nothing. That, we realized, was the single greatest privilege we enjoyed.
My last memory of that day is of Joni arranging things with the taxi driver. Although it would not have been a long walk to the restaurant, it was understood that we would be unwise to walk after dark in Arusha, so we called a taxi. When he arrived, we all piled into the car and five minutes later arrived at our destination.
As the rest of us got out and gathered on the sidewalk, Joni spoke to the driver in Swahili and exchanged phone numbers with him, but didn’t pay him. As we went into the restaurant, I asked her what that was all about. She said that it was a common practice to negotiate a cheaper fare by agreeing in advance to call the same driver for the return trip. Sure enough, later that evening our personal taxi returned and we rode back to the hotel having saved 2000 ts (about $1.50). What a marvelous thing it is to know the language and the local customs.