Good Morning America named the crater one of the natural wonders of the world, which it is without doubt. But the fulsome experience includes much more than just this indescribable beauty.
I’ve heard several experts refer to the ancient Ngorongoro volcano as the world’s tallest structure, greater than Everest. I don’t know if this is science or valid extrapolation from the awesome mountain that remains for everyone to see, today.
Now seven smaller, six dormant volcanoes, Ngorongoro’s largest imploded caldera is the national park. The 7k drive from the gate to the viewpoint is often in deep fog, but we were fortunate as it was completely clear, the afternoon light deepening the forest colors.
The crater sits like a nearly perfectly round cup in a highland rain forest salad of towering trees draped with lianas, thick flowering bushes and radiantly green vines. Some of the most precious plants on earth, including the beautiful acacia lehai (which I call the bonsai acacia) decorate the rim. Even before we stopped at the viewpoint to peer 1800′ into the crater national park, we knew we had a glimpse of the Garden of Eden.
The next morning we descended before dawn. African dawns and sunsets are equatorially unique, and I wasn’t about to have my family miss them. The crater was still lush, with pockets of water across its veld, although drying slightly right to schedule from my last visit a few weeks before.
The caldera was packed with animals. We are at the edge of the prime season, and there were probably still 17 or 18 thousand of the peak 20,000 animals found here in February and March when the wildebeest normally calve. Most of these are wildebeest and zebra, but there are eland, hartebeest, hippo, and virtually all the predators, although at last count only one leopard. That’s because the single great yellow-barked acacia forest is dwindling fast. Each time I come, the forest is thinner.
We saw four (of the estimated 18-20) black rhino, 3 (of the estimated 9) lion families, and my favorite several (of the who knows how many) big tuskers unique to the crater. During the horrible years of poaching, some of the largest tusked elephant on earth descended for its natural protection, and they’ve remained despite the containment of poaching that now exists. The crater isn’t good elephant habitat, but it was secure, and even now they won’t leave. We saw at close range one of the great masters, his turned in tusks nearly touching the ground.
Scenery and animals are the primary component of an East African vacation, I concede. But despite my clients’ protestations, so is the lodging. I do everything possible to avoid revealing component costs, because it’s a turnoff to be sure when my potential client learns that a night at Crater Lodge can cost $1000 per person.
Is it worth it? I’m not one to err on the side of a feather bed, but I’ve learned through numerous safaris that if I just bury the costs in the overall safari, that a stay at Crater Lodge becomes one of the main highlights. It was truly for my family, young and old alike. Erin Barnard, my son’s significant other, has an expressive face that beams joy with the slightest smile. I asked her why she was smiling as she walked with Brad from her “cabin.” “This is over the top,” she exclaimed.
We guides often refer to Crater Lodge as “Maasai Versailles.” It is over the top. It is over priced. The architecture is wild and uncontained. But the staff is the finest in Africa, the food and chefs probably the finest, and there’s no question as you laze in your oversize Victorian bath above which hangs a gargantuan chandelier as you look out your floor to (18′) ceiling window over the crater, that it is the perfect complement to this “over the top” natural wonder.