Imagine a journey through the heart of Tanzania not unlike the romantic accounts of Ernest Hemingway. Gently rolling hills bathed in soft, gentle breezes and knotted trees blanketed in Spanish moss. Mottled mountainsides punctuated by misty mornings followed by blazing daytime heat and chilled evenings, all against some of the world’s most spectacular backdrops, and under the Earth’s largest sky.
This is the Crater Highlands trek.
Working for a safari company definitely has its perks, so when it was decided that I should embark on a familiarization trip for this journey, I was more than willing. I was even more thrilled when two very close friends could join me and my wonderful Maasai guide, Ole Supuk, in the adventure.
What ensued over the next five days was an expedition that we likened to that of Frodo and Sam in J.R.R Tolkien’s beloved, Lord of the Rings (albeit without the threat of eminent demise, of course). And while one may chuckle at the zealous comparison, the trek’s vast and ever changing terrain, mystical sweeping vistas of distant jagged peaks, and rather ethereal feel definitely convey the feeling that one is indeed somewhere magical. This is the tale that unraveled…
We begin on the lush forested rim of the Ngorongoro Crater where the trees are thick with birds, the air is damp and cool and stealth buffalos lurk unseen in the foliage. We continue up a steep escarpment swathed in moss covered trees to behold the view into Olmoti Crater where we see a bushbuck gently sipping water. She senses our presence – her head juts up in attention – and bounds off with graceful leaps and strides. Along the crater wall is a small paradisical waterfall whose appearance is compared to that of the bushy Colobus Monkey’s Tail, and named thereafter. We overnight here (we are told it is a long day tomorrow) – the spray of the distant fall punctuate the cold and the sounds of the wild echo into the African night.
We are roused by the smell of coffee and the sounds of boiling water. Morning. Breakfast is served. Ema greets us with a smile and presents cereal, toast, an array of preserves and eggs with hot coffee and tea. We pack up camp and head out for the day. From here, the trek resumes across a substantial (18 km) valley, over rolling hills and past eagerly waving Maasai children who run from their distant bomas to meet us. At dusk we finally start up an abrupt incline to the Jurassic Empakai Crater – the next camp – where views of distant hills and impressive mountains swathed in purple haze loom. Night falls, and we rest our legs huddled over cups of steaming tea, basking in glow of the fire.
In the morning, we awake to the sound something munching on grass outside our tents. What? We sit up in our tents at attention and listen closer with wide eyes and baited breath – suddenly we hear the braying of donkeys and realize they are our new traveling companions! Sigh. Ole explains that from this point, the path is no longer accessible by car and our equipment must be loaded onto the tenacious creatures lead by Maasai. How they got to the middle of nowhere as if on cue, I have not a clue.
We decide to stretch our legs with a walk down into the crater itself. Empakai is significantly larger than Olmoti, tiny in comparison to Ngorongoro. It is a giant bowl of stone where a volcano once stood, known as a caldera. The walls are a mélange of jade colored fig trees and draping vines that pave the way to a large soda lake whose spectacular shoreline is occupied by thousands of pink flamingoes who migrate between here and Lake Natron.
From Empakai – with the donkeys leading our way – we continue across the rift valley’s escarpment ridge and it is from this vantage point that the sheer vastness of Africa is admired. There are no roads, no telephone poles, no developed areas for miles and miles – the Earth has been left un-bruised, untainted, and untamed – and is breathtaking. As we make the slow rounding of a corner, Ol Donyo Lengai becomes visible. She is an active volcano whose muffled rumblings and minor eruptions are the sole reminders of a time since past. It’s presence is both glorious and ominous – and it feels like we have slowly been trekking back in time. The walk continues slowly around this “Mountain of God” as it is known to the Maasai and finally leads to a scramble down the escarpment wall of the Great Rift.
Once down, the Rift Valley opens up to an endless dramatic landscape of velveteen slopes, serrated peaks and undulating valleys created lifetimes ago by aggressively shifting tectonic plates. Maasai children adorned in threadbare shukas (signature Maasai blue and red clothing) and jingling jewelry run over brimming with curiosity to greet us with beaming faces. The sounds of cowbells resonate across the valley floor as willowy Maasai men lead their cattle to greener pastures. In the distance lays Lake Natron, glistening in the sunlight like a mirage – our goal – and the end of our journey.
Ole slows us down and forces us to take respite under the “last tree” – he says from here will be only sun and heat – no shade -so we must enjoy. Ole, as usual, is right and we trek for hours across a vast stretch of desolate sun-baked Earth. The heat is strong and here sunburn takes only minutes to develop. We drape our kikoys over our heads and shoulders for protection. Respite finally comes when the Kamakai campsite is reached. We jump on the suggestion to take a short hike along the river into a small canyon where a waterfall awaits us. This supplies instant gratification in the form of fresh, cool water where the journey’s dust is cleansed away. The ecstasy is bittersweet, for we have reached the end of this enchanted journey.
Nighttime chats and laughs around crackling campfires, uninhibited skies with shooting stars and warm meals in the open air. Sunsets with steaming cups of cocoa, birdsongs in the morning amidst a backdrop of water-colored sunrises and the satisfaction of a job well done. Yeah, I’d do this again in a heartbeat.