In Tanzania, we wanted to get deeper into the bush and a little more active than the typical safari allows. We did do the classic Land Rover game drives though the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater for the first week or so (and they were great), but we like walking too much to just sit in a vehicle for much longer than that. Our outfitter offered a walk through the Great Rift Valley that was the perfect way to stay on the move and feel really immersed for a few days in this mysterious continent.
(CLICK ON PHOTOS if you want to see them full-size)
We started our odyssey in northern Tanzania by walking deep into Empakai Crater, where we explored the flamingo-covered shores of the lake on the crater floor. The only way down to the bottom of this volcanic depression is on foot, and we saw no other humans all day other than the silent, armed ranger accompanying us. We had a relaxing descent, Tarzan-swinging on vines and avoiding the droppings of one of the few other living creatures around, the water buffalo. The two-hour ascent to get back out, however, was exhausting; the altitude here was only 8000 feet, but the crater sides were steep and the day extremely hot. We collapsed into our first camp, in the shadow of the active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai, too tired to worry about how exposed we were to the area’s wildlife. We looked warily but gratefully at the solemn guard with his huge rifle, knowing that our thin pup tent walls would certainly not impede any animals who might consider us dinner.
We spent the next full day trekking cross-country through the rising and dipping folds of remote Maasailand. We seemed to float in the heat through swaying, waist-high grasses, and again saw no one but an occasional cattle herder. (Good thing, since later photos revealed we were all sporting attractive dirt mustaches.) Late in the afternoon, we reached our guide’s home village, Naiyobi, and visited his mother’s hut.
We were stunned at the small, dark space shared by a whole family and all of its animals. The fire in the center, for both cooking and heat, had charred the interior walls a deep black and left an intense woodsmoke smell that would linger in our clothes for days.
Afterward, we shopped for homemade beaded gifts in a corral in the village and visited a local Friday market teeming with people from all the nearby villages selling animal hides, grains, and jewelry. The children touched our pale arms repeatedly, and we fell in love with the sweet, shy smiles hiding behind the runny noses, flies, and dust that coated their little faces.
Tonight’s camp was both fascinating and disturbing. We pitched our tents near an area where some junior Maasai warriors were preparing for a two-day ritual in which they sacrifice an animal and then eat its meat after spending months in a remote site. After killing the terrified animal, the young warriors cooked it (barely) over a fire while dancing around the flames. The still-bloody meat was wiped on some of their faces and then consumed to give them strength. The setting was eerie, with dancing shadows and flames in the dark woods, and the sounds and sights were unsettling to those of us whose meat comes shrink-wrapped in plastic in brightly-lit supermarkets. A few in our group joined in a bouncing celebratory dance after the ritual meal, but most of us went to bed disquieted and fell asleep to the sounds of a rare rain shower and the yips and yells of these young men who had become equals with the other men of their village that night.
On our last day of trekking, we descended 2600 feet with ridge-to-ridge views of the Great Rift Valley most of the day. As we zigzagged down through the foothills and glowing yellow-barked acacias, our shoes filled with sand and our clothes were again saturated with fine dust. We were filthy overall by this point, and it was a great luxury to stand under lukewarm dribbles of water in our campsite near Lake Natron, a shallow salt lake straddling the Tanzania-Kenya border. Our safari was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but this short Tanzanian trek was easily the highlight of our time in East Africa – a chance to feel in some small way connected with this enigmatic continent.