Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Arusha and Goodbye

We came to the end of the journey, travelling to Arusha for the transfer back to Nairobi. Enroute, we stopped at a souvenir shop and wiped out the good merchant’s stock of AAA grade tanzanite. (We had orders from people at home to fill too, so it’s not like we’re super rich or anything.) They say tanzanite is running low in the mines and it was of course much cheaper near the source. At the cashier, we breezed past some frat boys thinking they were making a big purchase because they were splitting a USD300 statue. And then it struck me that we were carrying a small fortune worth of semi-precious stones. Luckily we weren’t in town for very long and the charming cottage we stayed at were in grounds protected by 24-hour guards and an electric fence.

If we thought luxury was over for the trip, we were wrong. Kimemo Coffee Lodge is absolutely stunning. We didn’t just have a suite to ourselves, we had a whole house to ourselves!

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Here I am at the path leading up to the house.

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It came with living room, dining room, kitchen, a study, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

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The four poster bed was almost de rigueur and it was so nice to sink into at the end of the day.

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The bathroom came with a roomy bathtub and had beautiful views of the outside. Our privacy was protected by a hedge, but we were worried that a gardener might come by while in the bath.

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Kimemo’s main business is in coffee. The lands of the plantation stretch for a bit and they process the beans on site. If you arrive at the right time, they’ll give you a tour and demonstration on how the beans are processed and the very friendly owners do their utmost to make you feel at home.

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We tried their homegrown brews in their onsite coffee house, sitting outside to enjoy the beautiful weather…

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… with their smooth cafe latte…

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… and aromatic frenchpress coffee.

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The view of Mount Meru at dusk was spectacular. We sat and enjoyed until it got too chilly.

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Then we went back to find that they’d put a lovely dinner in the fridge for us – shrimp cocktail followed by lobster tail, grilled tuna and squid with cous cous.

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And having breakfast in bed the next morning? No problem if one of you gets up to prepare it. The kitchen was there and I made scrambled eggs and toast to go with the fruit salad, yogurt and cereal already provided. What a lovely place.

Kimemo Coffee Lodge
Arusha, Tanzania

The day of our flight, we headed into Arusha town for lunch and a tiny spot of sightseeing. We weren’t able to get recommendations for good local fare for lunch. Apparently the nyama choma (barbecued meat) stalls are only open at night and there weren’t any good enough ones in town. Not wanting to have any of the usual Western fare, we went for Ethiopian at Spices & Herbs Restaurant, right by the famous roundabout (more about that in a bit).

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We were excited to try Ethiopian food for the first time. It was pretty cool to start the meal washing our hands right at the table.

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We ordered injera, which is a kind of flatbread made with fermented dough. It reminds me a bit of thosai, just that this is like a soft and slightly sour (from the ferment) pancake instead. I liked how it formed a bed under the food, soaking up all the lovely juices. Accompanying the injera were a spicy chicken stew that was veering towards curry, and chopped spinach that was kinda just… salty. At least it was a good foil to the meat dishes and the injera tasted yummy enough with just the salty spinach.

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We also had a rosemary mutton dish that came out on a miniature brazier. It tasted like a Chinese stirfry, probably from the green peppers accompanying it.

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It was quite a feast; similar to Indian food, the portions look small because the dishes are crammed together, but once you get to it it’s hard work finishing it. We left a lot of injera behind. What a waste. After lunch, we relaxed a bit writing postcards for friends and family…

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… and enjoying a cup of “spicy tea”.

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We then wandered to the roundabout, which was the only attraction in town. Apparently it was de rigueur for wedding couples to take photos there. It was a beautiful day for taking wedding photos, but we were not impressed. This certainly was a tiny town!

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So we headed back to Kimemo to get packed and take a photo with the indefatiguable Muba before setting off to the airport.

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Lucky for us, the weather kept being beautiful and the clouds opened up to allow a lovely view of Mount Kilimanjaro.

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We were glad to have caught a glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the mountain that made our trip a success. Like Frank at FAME, Donna had a similar accident on the mountain. One of her Maasai guides “wandered” off to get help and Donna made herself a promise that she’d set up Maasai Wanderings if she came out of it fine. And she did. And because of her, we had this fantastic trip.

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Asante (Swahili for “thank you”), Muba. Asante, Donna. Asante sana, Kenya and Tanzania, for your warm welcome and a beautiful trip.

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Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: A Visit to the Maasai

The next day brought us to a slightly more rustic visit, this time to a Maasai village. It was a fairly long drive in, this time on the flat plains but still very dry. The first word that came to mind when we stepped into the compound was “squalid”. This village was simply a group of little huts circling enclosed by a fence made of twigs, with a corral for the livestock right in the middle. There was plenty of space in between the huts – space for the animals to roam. Then the smell of livestock and poo struck. Squalid. No wonder.

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We went into one of the huts and were shocked at how dark it was inside. The sun was bright and pretty much overhead when we visited, yet when we entered the hut, everything was pitch black. It had no windows at all! The walls were made from dirt, ash and animal dung, with a roof of twigs. The twigs overhung the walls so that any rain would roll easily off and not wash away the walls. The inside contained a central area with with several alcoves. Two medium sized alcoves were for humans – one for the men and the other for the women and children. A big one was for the calves and a smaller one for the goat kids. Apparently lambs couldn’t be kept indoors and were put together with the sheep and other livestock in the large outdoor corral.

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We emerged from the dark hut and found that the village kids had discovered us. They ran up and charmingly tried out all their English words on us. It was clear that they had no clue what they were saying because they were shrieking “byebye, byebye!” gaily at us while trying to hold our hands and touch us. I’d normally be quite happy to pet the kids and play along, but I was horrified to find that flies were buzzing all over, concentrating on their eyes and seemingly feeding on their eye secretions. This is true village life all right, Maasai Wanderings had taken us to see a real village with its attendant problems like trachoma. It wasn’t a dressed up version like the one they attempted to show us at the Masai Mara for USD50 per person with a young man barely out of his teens claiming to be the village headman just because he had a hat made of a lion head.

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They taught DC how to use a stick to prop himself up the Maasai way – this helped to relax the body and allows a herdsman to stand for ages watching over his livestock. It’s so much of a habit that you can check out the young leader’s pose inside the hut. Look carefully and you can see him standing in a typically Maasai pose. And the man in the bright red plaid? He’s the village elder and it was beautifully endearing to see how much affection he had for his grandchildren.

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Soon, it was time for dancing. The village women gathered in a wide circle.

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They insisted that I join in too, and tried on several beaded collars on me till they were satisfied with the results.

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It was just sign language and smiles between us, and soon we were ready. Two ladies grabbed my hands and they started to chant.

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The ladies started dancing, a sort of hopping motion while jerking their ribcages so the beaded collars flipped up and down to the chanting. I shuffled along in a rather ungainly fashion and shrugged my shoulders up and down to simulate the flipping of the collar.

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Then it was time for the silly tourist to do her thing. My leading lady grabbed my hand even tighter and we crossed the circle, hopping away and went close to the other side, with a lady from the other side approaching too, and we almost crossed collars. “Hnee! Hnee!” chanted my leading lady in time with the beaded clashes.

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She then brought me over to DC and again “Hnee! Hnee!” as we hopped in front of him. Later DC told me it was some sort of presentation of a his woman dance and they were well pleased. Or somesuch. Pfft.

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Soon, the dancing was over and the ladies only let me admire the collar for a short while before asking if I wanted to keep it for USD25.

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This is where all the ladies took out their wares and the bargaining began. I ended up with a bracelet made from porcupine quills for USD5.

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I think the experience and the pictures are worth far more than that!

Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Walking with the Iraqw

We spent a little time visiting the Iraqw (pronounced “eeraku”) people in Karatu. Despite the similarity in name, they certainly weren’t related to the Iraqis. Having no idea what other indigenous people there were in the Crater area, we followed along when Muba left us with our local guide. We started off in one of the villages, really a series of ramshackle wooden huts with smouldering hearths smoking up the dark interior to keep the bugs at bay. He gave us a little lecture on Iraqw history – that they had arrived here hundreds of years ago before the Maasai and were farmers living off the rich brown soil of the area. There was some tension between them and the Maasai. It seemed like the two tribes compete for land, one wanted it for farming and the other for pasture land. The Iraqw naturally feel resentful that their more famous countrymen seemed to be given more concessions and government help when they were the ones who were willing to change some of their customs according to government direction. They were especially disgruntled that they had to use less wood for their houses as the government was concerned about deforestation. They roofed them with metal instead of the traditional wood. We soon emerged from the hut and next thing we knew, the local guide said that he was being summoned by the village elders and had to leave. He left us in the charge of his 20 year old son, Selestine.

And off we went on our walk through the valley that was just at the back of the village.

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It was a very easy walk across very brown earth. It was very dry and only the oldupai plants seemed to be growing in profusion.

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I don’t understand where all the water came to carve out this valley as it was so dry. I kept wondering whether water would suddenly gush out and wash us all away like in those crappy made for TV disaster movies.

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It was pretty cool to look at all this stuff about erosion and all, so many years after learning it in geography class. I kept thinking of my friends doing geography. Tricia and Serene, these pictures are for you!

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Another weird thing was how pretty the weeds are here. I asked about this lovely pale yellow flower and whether the cows eat them. Selestine dismissed it as a weed. End of story. I guess a 20 year old has other things on his mind.

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Such as girls. We stopped for our packed lunch at a tired little gazebo inside the grounds of a convenience store/cafe. By now, we were heartily sick and tired of boiled eggs and passed ours to Selestine. He hungrily tore into his own packed lunch. (Muba had passed the guide’s box to Selestine and got a day off – he later told us he enjoyed some ugali, something like polenta, and beef stew at the local cafe.) I’ve never seen anyone beat DC in wolfing down a leg of chicken. To be fair, DC was still sick and he was probably giving Selestine a chance. Selestine then charmed the two girls at the cafeteria by giving them the boiled eggs and chocolate bars we didn’t want.

We also went to visit the Iraqw school. It was such an eyeopener to see that the entire primary school was divided into just two classes – upper and lower primary. The students crammed themselves behind the desks and it’s still a mystery how they learn in such a mixed class. The head mistress showed us what they were learning and there was a question and answer session where they asked where Singapore was and whether we had any farmland. The students were astonished when DC told them that we grow crops by suspending them in the air and spray water with fertiliser at the roots. It was starkly different reality for these students, with their fates tied so closely to their reddish brown earth.

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Then we went past the brick factory. Here’s where the local earth gets pressed into bricks, dried out and then stacked up.

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The hollow at the bottom is then filled with wood and the bricks are fired in this self-provided kiln. It’s a pretty cool concept.

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We then visited Selestine’s house where his mother served us typical lunch fare of beans cooked with maize. It was tasty enough, mainly because there were more beans than tasteless starchy white corn, but the flavour became incredibly monotonous very quickly. It was hard to imagine that this is what they eat three days a meal, every single day. No wonder Selestine bolted down his chicken and boiled egg so quickly!

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Selestine’s father then sang us a few songs, fiddling along on his traditional string instrument with Selestine on the drum and his wife and neighbour accompanying him in dancing and backup vocals. They soon pulled me up and I shuffled awkwardly along. Leave a comment if you’d really like to see the video. It makes me cringe, but at least the song is rather interesting.

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And then Muba pulled up in the van and plucked us back to Endoro Lodge for the evening.

Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Endoro Lodge

We spent the next three nights at Endoro Lodge. DC spent much of the first day sleeping off the infection. On the next few days, we went out for quick trips whenever DC felt up to it, for example out for a few hours in the crater and an excursion to see the Iraqw people. As you can tell, we spent quite a bit of time in the lodge itself. It was a beautiful place, with prettily-manicured grounds and plenty of different plants to look at. Here, I felt a bit less uppity compared to the chi-chi Manor – and you can see that I reverted to my safari pants and fleece.

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Endoro Lodge is also in a coffee area and there were some coffee shrubs with bright red ripe berries for the picking.

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The room itself was as charmingly rustic as the rest of the grounds. A four-poster bed complete with mosquito net dominated the hardwood floor of the spacious room.

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And there was a roomy bathtub with a window overlooking a valley. There was also an outdoor shower but it was rather cold and we weren’t totally sure about our privacy – there was the occasional farmer walking along a path on the other side of the valley. We weren’t sure whether showering outside would make us very conspicuous!

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What we really liked were the little touches by the staff. As you may have seen from the first picture of the bed, the room was decorated with flowers every day.

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They changed the arrangement each day…

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… and even put flowers on the bathmat!

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Donna kindly arranged a massage for us, compliments of Maasai Wanderings. Too bad the room wasn’t heated and it was far too cold to be enjoyable. What a pity.

They also arranged for a special candlelight dinner at our patio. At first Betty, the lovely hotel manager, wanted to make us something familiar. She suggested a menu of Vegetable Soup followed by Manchurian Fried Rice with Oriental Vegetables. Thankfully, I managed to persuade her that we really much prefer trying the local cuisine. Instead of MFR with Oriental Veg, we had an amazingly tasty beef stew with some kind of local spinach, accompanied by rice and plantains. The beef was super flavourful – tasting deeply and meatily like how beef should – though slightly tough as all local beef tended to be. Stewing it was the way to go, and we enjoyed it together with the plantain, which looked a lot like sausage but tasted like a cross between tapioca and potato. Excellent stuff.

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Endoro Lodge
Karatu, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: FAME

DC fell ill on the way out from the Serengeti. We didn’t think it would be that bad and figured it was a matter of lack of acclimatisation. The cold mornings and evenings and hot days coupled with the dusty weather didn’t agree with him. At first I thought it was travellers’ flu, but it seemed to get worse. Thankfully the good people at The Manor pointed us towards a clinic in nearby Karatu. “They have a very good American doctor, please check in case it is malaria!” urged the staff at reception. Muba drove us there and soon we had registered and sat waiting with the locals.

It was slightly bewildering to suddenly be part of the local scene. We’d already seen some of the local Maasai coming in, still wearing their traditional clothing, just their everyday cloaks and not their Sunday best for the tourists. In the waiting room proper, there were Maasai in deep blue cloaks and local townspeople of other tribes wearing bright green and yellow sarongs. The Maasai really didn’t wear anything under their cloaks and didn’t seem to think much about partial public nudity. A grandmother entering the waiting room didn’t seem bothered at all that her cloak covered up in front but not a great deal from the side. Another mother brought a toddler with a hacking cough to see the doctor; she suckled her infant quite easily under her cloak while comforting her poor son. We stared, each finding the other exotic. Unfortunately, I was the only one who appreciated the local life as DC was pretty much wrung out and exhausted.

It seemed like a bit of a wait before it was DC’s turn. We realised that we’d waited a while because the American doctor himself saw DC. Dr Artress welcomed us with a big friendly smile and, as he washed his hands thoroughly, he asked us to call him Frank. He was disarmingly friendly and told us that while it was unlikely to be malaria given where we’d been in the past few days, he’d check anyway just to be sure. He then told us that the usual treatment would be what we’d have self-medicated with anyway – anti-histamines and a course of Augmentin. If we needed more paracetamol, he’d be happy to provide it, but for him? He prefers ibuprofen.

We chatted for a while. He was very impressed with DC’s diving watch, which DC explained was completely useless since we use dive computers (these babies aren’t actual computers – they compute dive times and depths and come in compact watch sizes) for diving. We were very impressed with his story. On his 50th birthday he and his wife attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to celebrate. He almost didn’t make it down because of a pulmonary edema – an air bubble that gets into your bloodstream because of sudden ascents to high altitude. He didn’t say the details of how he survived, but suffice to say that after he recuperated, he and his wife decided to spend their retirement giving back to Tanzania. Within months, they were back and set up FAME. He said that Karatu was much nicer than being in California where he hailed from. To our disappointment that we didn’t see any elephants in the crater, he deadpanned that they were all in his backyard stealing his bananas.

Before sending us on our way, Frank explained that tourists and those who could afford it would be charged more than the locals. This is a charity foundation after all. We were surprised that the bill (USD50) came up to less than what we’d pay for the same doctor visit back home. Tell me, which clinic in Singapore charges that little for consultation, pretty much instant lab results (very professionally done, no less) and expensive, albeit generic drugs> Since the fee would be covered by travel insurance anyway, we matched it with a donation.

To my horror, DC later developed the same hacking cough as the Maasai toddler. We took things much slower after that, which explains why the Ngorongoro Crater part of the safari is so short in this blog. After extensive medical observation and two months of convalescence, he’s recovered. Moral of the story? Buy travel insurance. It was unfortunate that DC caught something in Tanzania, and it’s pure speculation whether he got it at the waiting room in FAME. Whatever the case, Muba said he was glad to have taken us there, the alternative was the local hospital. He said that unlike FAME, the place wasn’t run as professionally and the doctors tended to take a trial and error approach.

Sadly, it didn’t occur to me to take a picture. You’ll have to content yourself with the website. Go on, click on the link and donate if your heart moves you.

FAME: The Foundation for African Medicine and Education
Karatu, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Birds

A lot of time spent in the crater was looking at birds. The most obvious one was the ostrich, which looked stunning against the backdrop of the crater wall.

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The black and white males stood out dramatically against the brown and green background. And this particular one seemed to be in heat.

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Muba pointed out its swollen pink neck, indicating that it was on the lookout for some amorous activity. Too bad the two dull brown females in his vicinity were too busy picking at grass to notice him. What a letdown.

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We stopped for lunch at the only designated picnic area in the Ngorongoro Crater. The place was a letdown compared to the well-run picnic spots in the Serengeti. Here, there weren’t any picnic tables for tourists to sit at. The toilets were horrid and there were just too many people there. We had to stay in our vehicles for fear of kites stealing our food. We witnessed a kite divebombing some tourists and almost getting away with a good meal. It was a pretty awesome sight.

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Then there were the peculiar looking guinea fowl pecking around anxiously, quite like primeval chickens. They’re probably my favourite bird of the trip because of the clownish seriousness of the way they go about their business.

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When the tourist crowds finally cleared, we made it to the edge of the lake…

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… and enjoyed the view of the hippos and pelicans in the distance. The hippos were shy and hardly ever put their heads out of the water, only leaving their domed backs peeking coyly out of the water.

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The pelicans, however, were far friendlier and sailed closer by for a nice shot or two.

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We then followed another kite out nearer to the soda lake…

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… and saw the last of the season’s flamingoes in the lake. Too bad they took off just after this shot, so nothing at close range. We’re surprised that Muba managed to find them in the first place as they were overdue for migration at this time of the year.

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Then Muba introduced us to Tanzania’s national bird, the gold-crested crown heron.

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They were beautiful in flight, taking off with long beats of their wings.

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Up close, they were even prettier, with the blue-grey top feathers contrasting dramatically against the cream underside. The gold crown gave an elegant touch to its slightly finicky walk.

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Watching Tanzania’s national bird was a lovely way to round up the last of the safari drives of the trip.

Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Entering the Crater

Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful. It’s a very unique setting in that you approach it from the top of the crater and all of a sudden you look over and see the valley below. Then you look around and realise that the valley is round!

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Within the valley, every landscape shot ends with the edge of the crater as the backdrop. There’s no escaping it. Most of the animals within the crater never leave it, though zebras and some of the wildebeest cross the 600 or so metres of crater lip with no problem. As for streams, they build up within the crater to form soda lakes. This one in the distance is a bit dried up and the white dust is from the bicarbonate of soda eroded from the volcanic crater walls and deposited on the sides of the lake.

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Things looked really parched as it was the dry season. The dirt tracks were more like dust tracks but it wasn’t as hot as it looks.

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The animals here were even more used to humans and their cars than elsewhere in the trip. They let us get quite close…

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… Close enough for pretty portrait shots, like this baby zebra. It doesn’t have black stripes, they’re dark brown. Baby zebras are really cute because the fur is so thick and fuzzy. It was a joy to get up close with them…

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… especially to observe how each zebra really does have a different pattern of stripes!

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With all the frenetic Big Five spotting behind us, we relaxed a bit and sat back to enjoy the scenery. Here two Grants’ gazelles pick their way across the crater floor…

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… One of them stops to check us out, and DC gets a nice picture.

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We saw lions, elephants and hippos in the crater, but not leopards (too open for them to show themselves) or rhinos. Muba spotted one, but it was too far away for us to be sure that the black blob in the binoculars belonged to a rhino. It was just our luck, really. We contented ourselves with lazy shots of easy targets, like this hyena enjoying a bask in the sun.

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And we were very happy to come up quite close to a golden jackal. The picture doesn’t do much justice to its beautiful coat.

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