This is a brilliant idea — for three reasons:
1) While someone else does the driving, you can both concentrate on the incredible scenery.
2) An expert guide can put all the amazing things you’ll see into a historical, geological and zoological context.
3) Someone will have your back if a lion strolls into the public bathroom…while you’re using it.
Once a gigantic volcano and now the world’s largest intact caldera, the absolutely ancient Crater is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Tanzania’s most-touristed spots. About 1600 feet below its rim, the unique ecosystem of the Crater’s floor is approximately 21 miles wide, full of grasslands and marsh, a saltwater lake, a fever-tree forest and hundreds of rare and wild animals.
If you’re planning to see the Crater for yourselves, I’d encourage you to stay nearby for at least one night, as the three-hour-each way drive from the city of Arusha (near Mount Kilimanjaro) and full day’s exploration of the Crater floor is a bit much to do in a single day.
At Arusha’s Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), you can either shop on-site tourist services for a safari guide to take you to, from and around the Crater; or, rent a car and drive yourselves to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where you can then obtain a permit and hire a guide. Bring US dollars if possible, and expect to pay approximately $300. (Rates change often.)
To shave off 90 minutes of driving time from Arusha, you can take a small, 20-minute charter flight from Arusha’s airstrip to the Lake Manyara airstrip, but this is most easily organized ahead of time by a safari company. A safari driver will then pick you up here for the 1 ½-hour drive to the Crater, taking care of permits and fees along the way.
To save potential hassle and time, we’d booked ahead at &Beyond’s Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, enabling us to catch a ride from JRO to Arusha’s local airstrip; hop a small charter flight to the Lake Manyara airstrip; be picked up from there and brought to the Lodge; and over a couple of days, tour the Crater twice. In the company of Erick, one of the Lodge’s most exceptionally knowledgeable resident guides, these two safari drives were some of the most incredible experiences we’ve yet had on Earth.
I’ll explain more in Ngorongoro Crater: Way Beyond the Rim.
But the following scene was the most bizarre:
The Hippo Pool is used as a safari picnic spot with clean public restrooms…as well as a rest area for two male lions. This means that while you idle beside your vehicle and enjoy a fine repast, anywhere between a thousand and one hundred feet away, two generally unpredictable predators are either sitting down or on the move. In the midst of remarking to Erick that this whole arrangement seemed, how do you say, tense, we heard a cry of alarm that the lions had headed for the ladies’ bathroom. In a flash, all the picnickers hopped in vehicles and gathered around the bathroom buildings to get an up-close view of the cats.
What few seemed to realize, though, is that a woman was in the bathroom at the time.
Her safari guide had just driven her over to the loo when the lion approached the building, and he couldn’t risk exiting the truck and following her to keep her safe. He called to her from outside to warn her to stay inside, but she couldn’t hear him from behind the building’s closed door. From our trucks, we all watched the scene in mute horror.
A few insanely stressful minutes later, when she started to emerge from the building and finally saw the lion in all its glory, her quick-thinking guide barked to her, “Stay inside!! Lock the stall door!!”
I’ve never seen a woman move so fast. So fast, in fact…that she forgot to close the building’s main door behind her. After a minute, the lion followed.
I’ve never felt more pure, stomach-dropping dread on behalf of another person. Adam said quietly, his eyes wide, “I actually don’t want to see this.”
But despite the odds, all this drama turned out just fine. The imperiled lady had managed to hole up in a stall and latch the door. A very few minutes later, the lion lost interest in the bathroom and cleared off, soon to be joined outside by his brother. The two cats plopped down in the adjacent road while back at the bathroom, the woman was at last shepherded — babbling ever so slightly — to safety.
The lions soon attracted another crowd of spectators, some of whom, in pursuit of the perfect photo, chose not to stay inside their safari vehicles.
In the Ngorongoro Crater, the theory of survival of the fittest is at work all around you.