Crater Highlands

Stretching from Mount Oldean – just above our bush camp beside Lake Eyasi – all the way through Ngorongoro Crater, Olmoti and Empakaai Craters, to the escarpment overlooking the slopes of Oldonyo Lengai, the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands offers an awesome and unique opportunity to experience dramatic natural beauty, while accompanied by a Maasai guide and donkeys – the traditional load bearers on journeys. Generally, a walking safari will begin in the afternoon following a morning game drive inside Ngorongoro Crater. If time permits, we may be able to stop off at either Olmoti Crater or Empakaai Crater, areas that have very few visitors and are all the better for this fact. Both craters are beautiful if the weather is clear. Olmoti’s floor is marshland in the wet season, with a waterfall and an amazing carpet or unusual fauna. Empakaai crater has a large soda lake and is home to countless flamingoes and Cape teal; well worth the steep descent and ascent on foot, back to the vehicle which is parked at the lip of the crater.

Nayobi Village and Maasai ‘Negotiations’

Beyond the three craters, we reach Nayobi Village, situated at the north eastern extremity of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Here, regardless of how well-prepared your guide is, who his usual local collaborators are, and the fact that there’s pretty much a fixed going rate for the hire of donkeys, there is nonetheless always a charade of negotiation for donkeys, with the owners going through the motions of looking horrified at the loads and insisting that their donkeys are going to be worn out and that it will be necessary to take more donkeys than are being asked for. These remonstrations should be understood to be merely local bargaining strategies and not taken too seriously, as a mature donkey can comfortably bear 50 kg (and 80 kg at a push for short distances), and yet we typically load each donkey with only around 30 kg. Adventurers may wonder why there is not a slicker, swifter and more organised / standardised way of conducting these arrangements with the Maasai, however they are asked to please reflect on the fact that the Maasai do not have a westerner’s approach to business and it is of limited value trying to convince them that our ways of doing these things are necessarily better than their own. Those who anticipate becoming impatient by this transaction, particularly if there have already been delays on route and there is little time remaining to get to Acacia Valley before sunset are invited to consider whether a more classical safari that adheres to the beaten track, may indeed suit their temperament better, before booking this option.

Walking safaris from Nayobi over the escarpment and down into the Great Rift Valley, are only moderately difficult, and nothing to be compared with an ascent of Kilimanjaro or even Oldonyo Lengai. Nonetheless, adventurers should be properly equipped with comfortable, supportive, and well worn-in hiking boots, waterproof jacket and trousers, and 3 litres of water carrying capacity in a comfortable day sack. The pace of movement is very slow as the donkeys have absolutely no interest in rushing, and the relaxed nature of this excursion should be capitalised on to gain some fascinating and thorough insights into Maasai life and culture, via your guide acting as a translator for you. Engaging with your Maasai Guide At this point we ask adventurers to consider that while some travellers like to be left to their own introspections and to enjoy the quietness of observing nature in their own way away from roads, vehicles, crowds and infrastructure, others are very keen to gain as much information as possible about the Maasai and their culture. We do not make any pre-suppositions about what will best interest a traveller about these walks.

The Maasai in these parts are still somewhat raw and have not yet learned to be over-bearing or to force themselves on ‘clients’ in the way that they certainly have along the main road from Mto wa Mbu through to the Serengeti. In the light of this, please understand that if you have an interest in the culture of the Maasai, the onus is properly on you to draw them out of themselves. Where an adventurer has a sincere and respectful interest, the Maasai will be genuinely delighted and proud to speak at great length about their truly fascinating culture, but they are equally aware that there will be elements of what they do that may be repugnant to those who both subscribe to a Judeo-Christian paradigm and who may perhaps be inclined to judge the actions of others from within their own moral paradigm. Some such examples that may offend some travellers are their drinking of blood, their using one another’s wives in common, their circumcising their females, and their belief that all cows rightly belong to the Maasai and that it is acceptable on occasion to kill members of other tribes (and sacrifice some of their own) during raids to ‘retrieve’ cows back into their rightful possession. The bleak and arid beauty of walking across a volcano-scarred landscape The walk descends from the village, past some idyllically-situated traditional settlements, and descends into a valley of yellow acacias. Prior to turning in for the night, it is recommended to request that your guide leads you up the short, steep, sandy hillside across from your camping location, to the top of the ridge, from where you can watch Oldonyo Lengai silhouetted against a (usually) clear African sky, as the sun sets behind you.

The following morning leads us along a series of ridges from where – if the weather is clear – we have amazing views of Lengai and, eventually, down into the Great Rift Valley, and towards Lake Natron. It should however be considered that ‘beauty’ is of course a matter of one’s personal aesthetic values, and while most will find the experience extraordinary and rare – perhaps a little like walking on Mars, without the breathing issues – others may be disappointed that the entire landscape has been scarred by the recent volcanic eruptions over the last five years that have utterly destroyed all greenery along a feature that is now apparently entirely devoid of life. Walkers should certainly not imagine that this is a game viewing walking safari, indeed it is only a ‘safari’ in the sense of safari being the Swahili word for ‘journey’. Those wanting to walk and see game on foot would be looking at the wrong option with a Crater Highlands Walk. Better options would be a guided game walk in Arusha National Park where it is possible to get close to giraffe, and where buffalo and elephants can sometimes be sighted, or – if able to access exclusive grade accommodation – ideally, a walking safari during the dry season from Oliver’s Camp on a slow safari that incorporates multiple days in Tarangire. A long and quite tiring descent brings us to the foot of Oldonyo Lengai, and a further hour or so brings us to where we’ll camp or lodge for the night. Those planning on ascending Oldonyo Lengai tonight will need to prepare their night-bag, get plenty of provisions together, and get to sleep as early as possible, as you’ll be awoken at a very anti-social hour and have several hours of challenging, but rewarding work ahead of you.

While this should of course in principle not be necessary, please bear in mind that our safari cooks do not usually climb Kilimanjaro with us, and tend to specialise in cooking on vehicle-dependent expeditions. Some of our less-experienced safari cooks will therefore lack some of the foresight of our mountain cooks with respect to preparing appropriate foods and fluids to carry on the climb. With this in mind, you are strongly encouraged to speak with your cook and find out what he proposes to send up with you to eat while you climb, and to please advise him to supplement his selection with additional items as per your taste and needs, as the climb of Oldonyo Lengai is arduous and nearly always underestimated and you will certainly need to keep your reserves well-stocked. Those not intending to climb the volcano, or where recent seismic activity precludes ascent, may wish to enjoy a waterfall walk in the area prior to heading southwards to Mto wa Mbu.