Tanzania Safari: Wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater
From the dramatic scenery and wildlife of the Ngorongoro Crater to the blissful beaches of Zanzibar, Tanzania is Africa at its very best
Nnn-goron-goro-goro-goro-goro", enthuses Godfrey, turning his head back to me. I'm sitting in the back seat of a safari vehicle, being shaken around like a bead inside a maraca, and if I'm honest, I'm starting to feel a tad queasy.
Our safari guide isn't just rolling these elongated noises off his tongue for kicks. This, he says, is the way the Maasai tribes once imitated the sound of the wooden cowbell in the Maa language, when they settled in Tanzania some 3,000 years ago. After a 600-metre descent down rocky dirt tracks, we make one final jolt (and so does my stomach) onto flat land.
"And that," says Godfrey "is how the Ngorongoro Crater earned its name."
We begin our journey to the Ngorongoro Crater in Arusha, an archetypal African city where we spend a couple of days exploring. We enter a café where a couple of Maasai men shuffle up to let us sit down. It's nigh on impossible for two westerners to decipher the menu but a little bit of pointing and gesticulating later and we're served one of the best curries that we've ever eaten. All for about £1.70. Outside, a mist hangs over an arresting Mount Meru backdrop and the air is filled with a melodic call to prayer. The traffic is suffocating and the streets feel frantic. But there's an enticing rawness to this city.
In search of nature – not to mention breathable air – we drive to Nimali, a remote safari lodge on the edge of the Tarangire National Park and our crash pad en route to the crater. The journey here is a safari in itself. Giraffes stride through the grass, ostriches dance around their nests and burnt orange Maasai bomas stand out on the biscuit-coloured land.
When we arrive at Nimali, it's remarkably quiet, save for the soundtrack of the bush. We fill our days driving in the camp's concession area, obsessively photographing its mystical baobab trees and enjoying a sofa safari, as elephants and zebra drop by, just metres away from the pool.
Mealtimes here are exciting. Resident chefs Big Buffalo and Small Buffalo ensure we're fed and watered with nyama choma (roasted meat), to-die-for fish and chips (yes really) and African fusion dining. Serafin, our waiter, tries his hardest to teach me Swahili. And each night, the bush lullaby that surrounds our tent – and a heady G&T – coaxes me into a deep sleep.
A couple of days later our journey to the Crater Highlands begins. And as the altitude creeps up, so does the breathtaking beauty of those Great Rift Valley views.
Tarmac roads disappear into dirt tracks and our 4x4 is spat out at the edge of the crater rim. The 100sq-mile hollow of this Unesco-recognised site unravels before us and it's hard to believe this makes up a mere 3% of the entire Ngorongoro area. If you want to feel insignificant, plonk yourself here.
Aside from having one of the coolest (and most-difficult-to-pronounce) names, the Ngorongoro Crater has bundles of things worth shouting about.
Formed three million years ago after a volcanic eruption, it's the world's largest unbroken caldera and part of an area where palaeontologists Dr Louis and Mary Leakey discovered some of the oldest human fossils. Some have called it the 'Cradle of Humankind'.
As we roll along the crater floor, the motion sickness subsides. The views aren't too shabby either. And the thousands of black dots we saw from the crater rim turn out to be gazelles, elands, wildebeest and zebras peppering the landscape. Warthogs dance around amusingly on their trotters like they're auditioning for the part of Pumbaa in The Lion King. And we spot the slow, flapping ears of African elephants underneath the acacia trees.
What we don't expect to see are other humans on foot. But since the Ngorongoro Conservation Area separated from the Serengeti National Park, Maasai tribesmen have been allowed to bring their cattle into the volcanic basin. There are now over 40,000 Maasai pastoralists living here.
It's their red-checked shukas we spot first, and then their goats, plodding through the dusty haze. They graze around the watering holes next to Africa's greatest beasts – which you'd think would come at a risk.
"If one of them is killed by a wild animal, the Maasai believe that person is cursed," Godfrey explains, very matter-of-factly, "but they're brought up not to be afraid of anything". I cling on to the hope that the 60-plus lions here have had enough in the way of four-legged game.
As we pop our heads out of the truck's retractable roof like inquisitive meerkats, the cynic in me thinks we've landed in a manmade safari park. Its overlapping landscapes of grass plains and swamps to salt-rich lakes – which allow everything from Namibian flamingos to the big five to thrive – will do that. But it's all an unbelievable product of nature that's got some calling it Africa's 'Jurassic Park'.
prehistoric-like secretarybirds, pools of hippos and a cackle of sinister-looking hyenas have us transfixed
We fail to spot the elusive rhino and leopards that hide in the Lerai woodland but prehistoric-like secretarybirds, pools of hippos and a cackle of sinister-looking hyenas have us transfixed. Meanwhile, every twitch in the grass or rustle in the trees has Godfrey scanning the landscape like a hawk.
It's a good job really; conservation rules here say that no safari vehicle may go off-road within the crater. So unlike areas of the Maasai Mara – where I'm told cheetahs practically pose for selfies – here, wildlife spotting requires an expert eye.
Soon, Godfrey is telling our driver to hush the engine and we sit in silence as we watch the dark tinge of a lion's mane moving in the grass. It's our first cat sighting, and those few minutes are utterly gripping. After five hours of driving (and two more cat sightings), we feel exhausted yet completely exhilarated. There's one final stop on our journey through Tanzania – the 'Spice Isle', otherwise known as Zanzibar.
Our destination is Zawadi, a secluded hotel on Mswakini Beach, on the island's south-east coast. With just nine villas, it's overwhelmingly bespoke and has luxury in spades, including sleek inside-outside dining areas, face-numbingly strong cocktails and a lavish bathtub-with-a-view.
In between Insta-worthy snaps of its infinity pool and walks on its butter-coloured sands, we kayak above shoals of tropical fish and rays, GoPro dipped in the water. My water-loving other half heads off down the beach – flippers in hand – to explore a nearby lagoon and I don't see him for half a day. We make a mental note to go one bit better next time and dive the Mnemba Atoll. But for now, this is one of those places where you exert around ten steps a day and spend hours taking multiple pictures of the view. Another cocktail? Oh, go on then.