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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tanzania: The Long Road to Ngorongoro Crater

(This is the sixth post in an ongoing series about our self-drive safari in Tanzania. It all started here.)

We left Tarangire National Park shortly after sunrise, anxious to get on the road to our next destination: Ngorongoro Crater. We had a multi-step process to perform before we could gain park entry there.

Being one of the most concentrated game areas in the world, Ngorongoro Crater is very popular and consequently very expensive. Entry to the park is closely guarded by the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA), a collection of park rangers, naturalists, and government officials bent on keeping the animals wild and (apparently) the park fund flush.

We cruised back down the highway we came up the first day, heading towards the turnoff. Everything was going well, we were getting more comfortable driving the car and looking ahead for the random speed bumps and bus stops that had caught us on the way in. We found the turnoff easily and started toward the next town when... BAM! A pothole the size and depth of a 10 gallon cooler tried to swallow the car. Mark slowed down, wiggled the steering wheel a bit (to make sure it still worked) and we both strained to get a look at the tires on our respective sides of the car. Everything was ok car-wise but we were a bit rattled.

All right then. New hazard to keep an eye out for.

I was reading our instructions out loud, over and over, trying to memorize the chain of events that had to be completed before we would be allowed entry into the park. We were approaching Karatu, the last town before the park gate and where the first of the transactions had to take place.

"We're looking for Exim Bank. It should be on the left side of the road."

By now we were tuned in to the finer art of signage in Tanzania. We figured a bank should at least have a sign, but it might not be where you would expect it, and the building itself might not appear very bank-like. We kept our eyes peeled, but even so almost missed it. We pulled into the dirt lot in a cloud of dust, making the two guys hanging out in front eyeball us curiously before resuming their conversation.
Karatu. Notice the deep ditch along the side of the road and all the people walking around. This is what makes it so hard to not only find things in town, but to pull over. There are periodic narrow bridges set up over the ditch, but it's tough to know which one to use.
The NCAA requires a cash deposit be made into Exim Bank for the park fees. We had counted out $536.00 (U.S.) that morning to pay for the following: 48 hours in the park ($50/day/person), crater fee ($200), camping fee ($30/day/person) and vehicle fee ($16).  Not cheap.

We entered the bank and were immediately struck by the quiet. After spending a few hours in the noisy tractor-like Land Rover bumping through town where drivers seem to communicate by car horn, it was a shock to be in a hushed room with a clean tile floor. Calm tellers behind the bullet proof windows were sorting cash while customers patiently sat and waited their turn, chairs lined up in neat rows along the wall. We took a seat and tried to figure out the system, sitting for a minute before realizing there was a number board above the windows. We had to take a number before we were served, but where? Mark found it; a small freestanding ATM looking thing, it's sole purpose to dispense numbers to customers. He took a number and immediately we were called to window 3.

We handed over our paperwork (which we had filled out that morning before leaving our campsite) and our cash, all in 2006 or newer bills. The teller counted it out carefully then handed us a receipt. I held onto it with an iron grip; lose this scrap of paper and say goodbye to $536 and any chance to get into the park.

From there we had to find the NCAA office so they could issue a "Smart Card" and load it with our deposit money. The instructions were a bit murky at this point; they moved the office recently and Shaw wasn't exactly sure where it was. We asked the bank manager who directed us to look for the Bougainvillea Lodge. "The office is right next to it, on the right side of the road."

OK. We can do this.

After stopping at the ATM outside to pick up some more Tanzanian shillings, we got back in the car and cruised slowly up the road looking for the lodge and also a fuel station. This would be our last opportunity to fill up until we got to Serengeti, three days and many kilometers from here. We kept driving through town, eyes open so wide our eyelids felt like they were ripping. Do you see it? No! Do you? No!

It seemed like we were running out of town. The buildings were getting a little farther apart and we could see some open country up ahead. Crap! Did we miss it? Why is it so hard to find things here?

Traffic was still pretty thick. A lot of trucks were traveling through; it looked like there was a road project happening somewhere, a lot of heavy equipment and haulers were mixed in with the usual mini-buses and cars making it hard to see the buildings as we passed. At what appeared to be the edge of town we spotted a fuel station on the right. "Let's pull in there, we can get diesel and ask them where the office is."

That's when American Driver Mark suddenly took over from Tanzanian Driver Mark. Without thinking, he started turning into the station, momentarily forgetting that making a right turn in Tanzania requires crossing the oncoming traffic lane. A huge truck hauling a teetering pile of household items was coming right toward us.

"No, don't go. Don't GO. STOP!!!!"

I actually screamed. I'm not proud, but I did. Mark swerved at the last possible second and we missed getting creamed by about two inches (ok, 5.08 centimeters, to use the local measurement system.) I'm not sure what the truck driver thought, but it probably wasn't flattering.

Safely into the fuel station, we both had to sit for a minute to cram our hearts back into our chests and stop shaking. I'm sure the fuel station attendant thought I had some sort of neurological damage as I counted out the shillings with quaking hands to pay for diesel. Mark asked her where the NCAA office was and she pointed to the left. There it was, right next to the fuel station; we didn't even have to leave the parking lot. It was only then we noticed the sign to the right: "Bougainvillea Lodge."


We gathered our paperwork and the precious receipt and walked over to the office. We gave our form and receipt to one of the three young women chatting in the office and she started to enter our information. Just then, a man walked in dressed in official looking olive drab, the same clothing we had seen the rangers wearing in Tarangire. The woman who had our paperwork asked which safari company we were traveling with.
"Shaw Safaris"
"Please give me your card so I can fill it."
"We don't have one. We were told you would issue one to us with the receipt."
At this point the official started talking loudly to the women. They argued back and forth a bit in Kiswahili then he turned to us and asked again, "Where is your smart card?"

This is where patience, politics and no small amount of ass kissing came into play. Shaw had supplied us with the instructions for entering the park, but instructions are apparently only in effect until the next official comes on shift. He told us that Shaw should have given us their card so the office could load the deposit on it. Since we didn't have a card, they couldn't let us into the park. "I'm sorry." he said, "You can't go in without a card. The problem is, if you overstay your 48 hours we have no way to go back and charge you for the extra time. You must get a card from your company."

The safari companies have registered cards and load them with large amounts of cash, deducting as they enter and exit the park. We had only paid exactly as much as we would need for the time we would be there. We could see the official's point; we had wondered about this ourselves when we read the procedures but figured they had it worked out somehow. Apparently not.

We got our cell phone from the car and called Shaw. Thankfully, Erika picked up on the first ring. We handed the phone over to the official and we listened as he repeated his reasoning and told her he needed the Shaw card. We found out later that she promised him that she would send it with her customers in the future, but just this once could he make an exception? In the meantime we tried to look as sympathetic and unimposing as possible.

He ended the call and looked at us, exasperated. We smiled and said nothing. He sighed, loudly. He spoke to the woman who was holding our paperwork and turned back to us. "I will let you in this time. But next time you will not be allowed without a card." We thanked him profusely and promised on our mother's graves (sorry Mom!) that we would be out of the park by the appointed hour, that we would drive carefully and obey all the park rules, complimenting him for being the most generous, kind person we had met in Tanzania.

Back on the road, we were halfway to the gate when we realized we should have stopped and bought more food and water. We were ok for the next few days but there weren't any stops between here and Serengeti. We decided to risk going without, since turning back would entail more driving, something that didn't really appeal to either of us at the moment.
The massive gate at Ngorongoro Crater, the equally massive guard in the foreground.

We pulled into the parking lot at the gate, a hulking cement archway guarding the main entrance to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. We took our smart card and paperwork into the office to check in at the desk. Inside, a group of safari drivers were jostling up against the check-in windows, each trying the push their paperwork in front of the clerks. We were a bit intimidated; there was no line and no clear procedure, it seemed to be every man for himself. We waited for a lull in the action and shoved in with the crowd. We finally got the attention of the far clerk who motioned for our paperwork. Check, stamp, check, he signed us into his Log Book, we signed us into the matching one on our side of the window, and he handed us a form. "Take this and show it to the guard."

Hmmm. Ok.

We got back in the car drove twenty feet and were stopped by the guard, dressed in the same olive drab as the official at the office, an impressive AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He looked over our paperwork and told us to check in at the desk.

Wait. Didn't we just do that?

"No no! The desk on the other side!" The guard looked peeved. It's not good to peeve the guy with the gun.

OK. Good. We will. Thank you.

Our vehicle waiting to enter, Mark in the background filling out gate Log Book #2.
We drove another 10 feet to the check-in desk, located in a tiny office on the other side of the archway. Mark brought the paperwork in and signed us into their Log Book, as the woman at the desk signed us into her matching book. Two guys hanging around the window cajoled Mark a bit, joking with him about driving himself. "Why don't you hire us? We'll guide you!"

(One thing we quickly learned: there are no shortage of guys hanging around in Tanzania. Unemployment is high, and there are lots of young men  who would love to be safari drivers. Getting a driver's license is an expensive and laborious undertaking though, not to mention obtaining a vehicle, so competition for safari guide/cook/helper is fierce.)

Finally, we entered the park.
Ngorongoro Crater is home to the endangered black rhino, long a target for poachers. This memorial at the overlook listed the many unfortunate rangers who paid with their lives protecting the animals.

Ngorongoro Crater is famous for it's concentrated game. Once a giant volcano estimated to be 18,000 to 19,000 feet high, it exploded and left a 2000 foot deep caldera with unbroken high walls, essentially creating a natural fenced pasture. The animals that live inside are happy to stay put, making it one of the most coveted safari areas in the world. More lions live there per square foot than anywhere else on the planet. They are fed by the numerous zebra, gnus and gazelles that live on the plains alongside the hippo, elephant and endangered black rhinoceros. Birds and hippo enjoy the lakes that formed when mountainside springs fed into the crater. There are also a few saline lakes that attract flamingos who feed on the algae that forms in the brackish water.

The narrow road up the side of the crater.
We had read about this place for months and finally we were here! We drove up and up the side of the crater, slowly rising into the clouds that hung over the 7000 foot walls. The road was made up of red dirt, corrugated and narrowing as it got to the top. Safari tour cars careened down the mountain at us, the drivers in a hurry to pick up their next load. After the scare we had that morning, Mark was perfectly willing to pull over and let them pass by, not willing to risk our lives twice in one day.

At the top we stopped at the overlook. Dense fog hung over us and it was hard to see the crater floor. We took the sign's word for it that this was a spectacular view. We stopped in at the restroom there (score! they had TP) and ventured forth to the campground.

What little we could see from the overlook.
It was much cooler there because of the altitude, and consequently much greener. The campground was a big grassy knoll marked by a ring of volcanic rocks. Safari tour groups were setting up tents on the upper portion, so we found a spot on the lower edge and backed onto the flattest spot we could find. Moments later, the campground host, Wilson, came down to check our paperwork. He pointed out the rules on the back of the form, making an effort to call our attention to Rule #7:

#7. All visitors, unless accompanied by a licensed guide must take an official guide when entering the crater.
Our lonely spot on the grassy knoll.
Simba A campsite, Ngorongoro Crater.

OK. Nowhere in the instructions did it say we needed a guide to go into the crater. Shaw was very specific about the rules, and that wasn't one of them. We were planning to go down early the next morning, but what if they turned us away at the gate for lack of a guide? We already paid the $200 crater fee and really really didn't want to miss out.

Maasai villages dot the countryside above the crater.
We had some dinner and mulled it over. We had made friends with a couple that were camping next to us, so I walked over to ask their advice. They referred me to a safari driver they had met, Jackson, who had seemed really friendly. I found him joking with his co-workers at their tent.

"Hello my friend!" Jackson was very enthusiastic as he came toward me. I reached to shake his hand and he batted it away, almost lifting me off my feet with a giant bear hug. I asked him (after the requisite small talk) if every vehicle needed a guide to go into the crater. "Hmmm. Yes." At this point I'm thinking: of course he'd say yes, he's a guide! Why did he hesitate? 
How much would it cost?
"How much do you have?" then he burst into a huge infectious laugh. "I will find you a guide. You can follow along with my group and you will see many animals!" he promised.

We made friends with these Maasai boys at the campground. They stood across the road from us and stared, until finally we relented and shared a snack with them. The little guy to the left was friendly and talkative, negotiating with us on behalf of the the others. Undoubtedly a future safari guide.
Mark and I waited back at camp, discussing at what price point we would risk going in without a guide. We only had so much cash and had to plot things out before we got in too deep. An hour later Jackson approached dragging a young guy behind him, booming "I have found you a guide!"

Behind him stood Wilson, the campground host and evidently, part time safari guide. No wonder he had been so adamant about Rule #7.

Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.